Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

Potatoes in bags

So this year we have decided to grow our potatoes in grow bags. There are several reasons for this. Partly this is down to our potatoes from last year. Across the UK last year was quite poor conditions for potato growth, lots of wet weather at the wrong kind of time ended up with blight and slugs being more common than usual. We didn’t experience any blight but we did have a fair amount of our crop hit by slugs. It was a real disappointment to dig up our lovely harvest and find it had been damaged. We also had our potatoes in the field last year and we trialled using lazy beds which were a lot of work to set up and I don’t think they necessarily gave us the best crops. This year a couple of things are different. We now have the dog and the dog kennel up in the field. We also will be living up there in the not too distant future in our caravan as the work is completed. The area we used last year has grown over a fair bit as we kind of neglected it a bit (oops). So we decided to grow our potatoes in bags this year. Growing potatoes in bags is a great way for anyone to start growing some of their own veggies as it requires very little outside space, it could even be done on a balcony, and requires very little skill. In a previous house of ours we had grown potatoes in bags one year so we still had some bags left over but they can be bought from most garden centres or online. I’m even planning on using some of our spare recycling bags this year for our larger main crop varieties.

I always like to chit my seed potatoes, although you don’t really need to chit main crop varieties but as I buy all my seed potatoes at the same time it makes sense to. For chitting potatoes all you require is an egg box or two. Make sure that the side of the potato with the most eyes is facing upmost and leave them to sit in a warm dark place. Chitting just helps to give the seed potatoes a head start. Make sure before you start that you roll down the sides of the grow bag for ease of planting and for more sun exposure, we will roll them up again when we earth up the potatoes. For planting potatoes into bags I tend to go for 4 to 5 inches of a mixture of compost and well rotten manure and then water them and leave for 10-15 minutes or so to let it drain downwards. Then place three seed potatoes with the largest chits pointing upwards (as shown below). There are variations in the sizes of grow bags so if the label suggests to include more or less then go with that. Cover the potatoes with more compost (say three or four inches) and then lightly water again. As there have been a fair number of cold snaps (lots of snow) this year, when I first planted our early potatoes I kept them in the greenhouse to make sure they got off to a good start. If you don’t have a greenhouse then you could keep them indoors until all sign of frost has passed or just don’t plant until a bit later.

In a couple of weeks you should see the first signs of growth. Don’t get over excited and start earthing up yet, I like to wait until I have a good four or five inches of growth first time so I can be sure that they’re well established. Then cover them with compost until the tops of the plants are only just showing. Repeat as often as you can until the bags are full and then just wait. Below are our Red Duke of York earlies. The three bags on the left we planted first and are just about to have their final earthing up, the two bags on the right were planted a couple of weeks later and are due their first earthing up. I’ll update more about how to know when potatoes are ready nearer to the time.

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Raised beds · Vegetable growing

Preparing the raised beds for planting season

As you know last year my husband and I designed and built our own raised beds which proved to be a really great way for us to grow our vegetables. At the end of last years growing season we covered the empty beds with cardboard (to prevent weed growth) and just left them alone for the winter. So when it looked like it might be actually getting warm enough to plant some seeds I started to ready the beds for the season.

Two out of our six beds are occupied already with perennial crops (asparagus in one, strawberries in the other) so they need slightly different treatment but I’ll save that for another day. A good amount of the cardboard cover had began to compost down so I started by removing any large remaining pieces and then used a hand fork to thoroughly turn over all the compost to ensure it was lump free and crumbly. I’ve not added any extra nutrients to our beds this year but will probably give the crops some appropriate boosts once they have begun growing. I tried to plan out what to grow in the beds but have kept dithering about exactly what to go for so I’ve ended up starting with what we really enjoyed from our crops last year.

We’ve planted one bed so far. Just with seeds directly sown into the ground rather than trying to grow seedlings and then transplanting them. We’ll thin as required, the chickens really enjoy seedlings and we have loads of free seeds from gardening magazines. Two of our stand out crops from last year were turnips and carrots. We only planted one row of turnips last year and we found they grew really well and were delicious. We really enjoyed turnip in soups and it is a great staple roast dinner side dish. Not only that but they grow relatively quickly, freeing up the ground for more crops. The second crop was a relatively late addition to our vegetable garden last year but became a firm favourite. As a late addition (we actually planted some in the space left by the turnips last year) we only had a small crop but they were probably the vegetable where we noticed the biggest taste difference with shop bought varieties. Carrots too are a relatively quick growing crop so the pair are well matched.

So our first raised bed has two rows each of carrots (Nantes variety) and turnips (Purple Top Milan variety). If it turns out to be too early and too cold to have planted them then we haven’t really lost much more than a few seeds. Let’s wait and see in a few weeks if we have any sign of life, fingers crossed. Next week I’ll have a go at planting one of our other beds up though with what I haven’t quite decided yet.

Fruit growing · Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

Tomato bed

So our greenhouse has one side sectioned off to be used as a growing bed. This week one of my jobs was to prepare the bed ready for our tomatoes. As a family it is surprising how many tomatoes we actually use in various forms. Both C and I enjoy eating cherry tomatoes and we also use raw tomatoes in salads (I love a good capers salad). I use tomato as a base in my cooking a lot (my husband would say too much) and we also like to indulge in the odd sun dried tomato. In previous years we have grown cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets and the taste compared to shop bought varieties was incredible, so much so that J even liked them. So we’re really excited about growing so many more varieties of our own tomatoes this year. We’ve already planted some seeds and they have began to grow (with varying success) so this week I got our beds ready for when they are big enough to be transplanted out.

Now the bed down the side of the greenhouse is a really good size and was one of the reasons that we chose this particular greenhouse. We’ve filled the base of the bed with gravel. This apparently is good for helping with watering as you water the gravel and it keeps moisture in the greenhouse? I’m not really sure exactly but J has done his research and says it does. Then on top of this we have space for six grow bags, and the requisite black plastic trays underneath them. The at the end there is still just about space for our two citrus trees. Citrus trees? Yup, we have two citrus trees, one orange (I think it’s actually a mandarine to be exact) and one lime. They’re only little, although I did repot them recently, but they should hopefully give us a couple of fruits this year. They’re just starting to show new Spring growth as you can see below.

We mainly wanted the orange tree as we like to eat oranges, and, I’m not going to lie, the lime tree is mainly for gin and tonics. They will be alright to go outside in warmer weather, if we ever get any, but they will need to spend the colder months inside.

Anyhow, back to the tomatoes. So the bed is all set up, we do have everything ready for when the tomatoes need support but we’ll wait to add them as required. We have 18 slots to fill grow bag wise now and I’ve planted numerous seeds, of a number of different varieties, which are slowly starting to show promise. I’ve also planted a couple of pepper seeds and I’ll probably dedicate one grow bag to these. The flowers you can see are little C’s selection from the garden centre a few weeks ago. Like her daddy she really loves growing flowers and also has some in her bedroom, she loves stroking the petals.

Next to the flowers is our greenhouse heater which gives it an extra boost when it gets particularly chilly, which it has a lot in recent weeks! I’ve also given the greenhouse a good old tidy as you can probably tell. We have our little bistro set of table and chairs in the greenhouse at the moment and it fits quite nicely over the power supply stand. There is a lovely long work bench down the opposite side to the tomato bed which is now fairly clear and stores various paraphernalia at either end. Our seedlings are currently in the various propagators you can see. The purple thing is C’s fairy garden in case you were wondering.

Our tools are currently laying flat underneath the workbench. Not necessarily a permanent location for them yet but one which suits them for now. I have a lovely folding tray table at the very back which is useful both inside and outside, mainly for holding cups of tea at the moment but hopefully more when the weather gets a bit better. C has her own supply of gardening bits as you can see at the bottom right of the picture including her Peter Rabbit gardening apron which I made for her recently. I have plans for one for myself, although probably not with the same fabric.

So this has been a rather distracted post I know, so I shall end by bringing it back to tomatoes. Here are some of my tomato seedlings when they finally appeared. Thankfully they have grown a little bit more since this photo.

Life in the Countryside · Raised beds · Recreation area · Vegetable growing

Cutting the asparagus back

So our asparagus crowns went in in April and for the first year you are supposed to not harvest them at all and let the foliage grow wild so that the crowns can really develop and establish. It was lovely to see the spears appear from the ground but as they grew into foliage the bed looked a bit messy.


So when it comes to Autumn and the foliage starts to turn brown and die back you can cut the stems back to about one inch above the ground and them mulch the bed. 


The bed now looks so much neater and hopefully we will have a good crop next year. One of the crowns does look a little weaker than the others but fingers crossed it will still produce well. It may seem a pain to have to not harvest it in the first year, but as crowns can typically last for 20 years, leaving one years worth of harvest in order to have 20 years of excellent harvest seems a small sacrifice to make. Hopefully it will pay off next year. 

Vegetable growing

Earthing the Christmas tatties

So back at the end of August C and I planted our Christmas potatoes and a couple of weeks ago they were ready to be earthed up. Earthing up basically means putting soil (compost ideally) on top of the foliage that has sprouted from the potatoes. You can completely cover it and it will keep growing through the new soil. Earthing up can be done more than once as well. Why earth up potatoes? Simply, to increase the yield. The more depth of soil, the more space for potatoes to grow. 


So basically once the potato foliage has grown to about 15cm then cover them with earth just up to the top of the foliage. Then once they’ve grown to the same height again then repeat. I would probably only earth up twice to then give the chance for the foliage to develop and enable it to concentrate on fattening up those tubers. If you have your potatoes in bags like me (which ideally all potatoes grown at the time of year should be) then you can earth up to the top of the bag. Remember though that bags are pretty hard to move when full so try to get them in their final position (a greenhouse or conservatory by mid October) before earthing up. 


Mine can probably have a tiny bit more earth in but not much really. Next thing to watch out for potato-wise is the flowers…hoping they appear by about mid October. Does anyone else grow Christmas potatoes? How are they getting on?

Raised beds · Vegetable growing

The death of the broad beans

Our broad beans were grown from plants bought from the garden centre to fill a gap as we were rather late in getting the raised beds finished. So I wasn’t too precious about them really. We had a few the other week but most of them weren’t ready before we went on holiday. Unfortunately, by the time we had come back from holiday they had been hit by what is known as rust. I did open some pods to check if the beans were alright but they weren’t, they were a write off. So we’ve had to dig them up and bin them (bin rather than compost for any diseased plants in our house). Not exactly what we would have hoped for but nevermind. Next year they will hopefully be in the field and will get more of the attention that they need. 

Raised beds · Vegetable growing

When to pick a pumpkin

Now as I’m sure I’ve said before, pumpkins were very much a novelty item for us. J doesn’t really like them, neither does C (I think, I haven’t really tried her with them since she was weaning) but I do like pumpkin soup as a nice winter warmer. But I had some seeds free from a magazine so I’d planted two next to each other and then once the seedlings had appeared removed the weaker seedling. The pumpkins had been planted in a raised bed with the cauliflowers (naively I had thought the cauliflowers would be out by the time the pumpkin got to any size, how wrong that was). We’ve had moments when they started to invade the rest of the garden and had to be cut back. 


I ended up cutting it back to leave us with a total of two good pumpkins. It has been quite fascinating to watch not only as they grew in size but also slowly changed in colour.




So you can see they have grown quite a bit and slowly changed colour as they’ve ripened. So after a little bit of research about when to pick them (tap them and a hollow sound is a good indication) as the vine was starting to die back by itself I decided to bite the bullet and cut them. 


You can see that the stem has already started to darken to the traditional look that you see in shops. So now we are going to leave them for a few weeks to finish the hardening. Apparently if stored in a cool and dry place they can last for a good six months so even though they have been picked now they should still be good until Halloween when we can try our first carving! Now I have about a month to find some good pumpkin recipes. Any suggestions? 

Vegetable growing

Potato types: a review

So all of our Spring planted potatoes have now been harvested and we have sampled some of each variety so I thought it would be a good time to look back at the varieties we grew and see which ones we would grow again and which ones we wouldn’t. 


As a reminder for everyone our six varieties were: Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Maris Peer, Maris Piper, Purple Majesty and King Edward. The Purple Majesty were an individual pack of seed potatoes and the other five varieties were all together as a beginners potato growing pack. They were all planted in lazy beds in the field and ended up all being planted at the same time but were harvested at slightly different stages. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Red Duke of York:

These were my favourites I think. Our only first earlies they went in a little late and we left them in for about 11 or 12 weeks in the end and they were amazing. This variety produces red skinned potatoes that actually grew to an incredible size. We found they made great baked potatoes and also did well as roasties or mash. In fact there wasn’t anything we did with them that we didn’t enjoy. They also seemed to have been one of the varieties which were less damaged by slugs or other pests. These are a definite must for next year. 


Charlotte

These are second earlies and a very well known supermarket variety of new potatoes. These turned out pretty well as well, a good job as we have these as our Autumn planted (or Christmas) potatoes. They were a good size for Charlotte’s and had beautiful yellow flesh. There was some damage by pests but not too much thankfully. I think we will probably do these next summer as well. 


Maris Peer

Now these were one of our least successful varieties. Lots were attacked by slugs and we lost a significant amount of our crop to them. They have a more white flesh and just in general didn’t look as appetising as the others. The taste was okay but nothing special. These are not going to be repeated next year.


Maris Piper

Again this is a well known variety so I was expecting great things. This was another crop which was hit pretty bad by the slugs and other pests. The taste wasn’t bad, but nothing special and a bit disappointing for such a well known variety. I think we probably won’t be doing these again next year and will try something different.


Purple Majesty

Now J had really wanted to grow these as he had once had them served boiled at a posh restaurant and wanted repeat the experience at home. They turned out very well and gave us a good yield. However, some people were a bit put off by the colour. C wouldn’t try them and we served them a couple of times for Sunday Roast (in combination with other varieties) when we had guests over and a couple of people weren’t keen on sampling them. They were also remarkably difficult when it came to spotting any defects until they were peeled so they weren’t going to be great to store. So probably not a one for next year. 


King Edward

Again another well known potato variety and what should have been a reliable maincrop potato. However, we had quite low yields (although this may have been that they needed earthing up more) and they ended up being nibbled on by some kind of rodent (my money is on a vole). And actually taste-wise they weren’t as good as other varieties, we were very disappointed in the roasties we made with them. So probably not ones to repeat next year.


So we would grow the Charlottes, the Red Duke of York and would recommend the Purple Majesty but probably won’t grow ourselves next year. The Maris Peer, Maris Piper and King Edwards don’t have a place in our growing schedule for next year. Some interesting points to note here are that apparently it is a bad year in general for potatoes (according to smallholders we know) so we might have had less slug damage and better yields if the weather had been different. And we probably should have earthed up a bit more but actually the lazy beds weren’t as easy to keep weed free as we might have hoped. 

Next job on the agenda – work out what different varieties to try next year! Any recommendations? 

Vegetable growing

Christmas potatoes

I shared a couple of weeks ago that C and I bought our Christmas potatoes in one of my favourite local garden centres. Christmas potatoes are potatoes that you plant in late summer/early autumn and harvest at around (or just before) Christmas time, they are also known as Autumn planting potatoes but I think the name Christmas potatoes has become more popular in recent years. Christmas potatoes only really work as new potato varieties (also known as earlies) as they have a shorter growing period so enough time to mature before the winter sets in. We have chosen two different varieties, Charlotte (a favourite of ours) and a new one to try Pentland Javelin. Now late planted potatoes such as these are best grown in bags as the open ground can get pretty cold in winter. Then ideally before the first frost you want to move the bags into a greenhouse (or a conservatory) to keep them a bit warmer. You can get your potato bags from a variety of places but I found them cheaper online than in the garden centres. 

I find it best to roll down the sides of your bag before you start as then they are easier to fill and also they get the best access to sun. 


First fill your bag with about 10-15 cm of good quality compost and water it well. Then place 2 or 3 seed potatoes on top, with the best looking sprouts facing upwards.

Then cover with another 10 cm of compost and lightly sprinkle with water again. 
Then they just need leaving, until you get your first foliage you will need to ensure that the soil is kept moist so try to check it every couple of days. Then once they have a good amount of green foliage sprouting (say 10 cm plus) then completely cover with compost again (roll the bag sides up as required). Then repeat until the bag is full. This is known as earthing up and will help to maximise your produce. 


Now the astute amongst you will have noticed that I earlier said you will have to move the potatoes inside before the first frost. Now the potato bags might be rather heavy once you start filling them with compost so for us we have already sited them where our greenhouse will be constructed. Obviously not an option for most people but it is something worth remembering before you overfill your bags and then can’t move them. Although the bags do have handles to move them, I don’t imagine they will do too well when they are full of compost. Has anyone else grown potatoes in bags this year or fancy trying it?

Raised beds · Vegetable growing

Harvesting carrots

So carrots this year for us were very much a ‘let’s just chuck some seeds in this empty space and see what happens’ kind of thing. I had some free seeds from a magazine and a bit of a gap from where some of our beetroot seeds hadn’t taken so C and I just threw some in to see what happened. When C is sowing seeds they tend to be rather unevenly sown, try explaining ‘sow thinly’ to a toddler! I wasn’t really expecting any of them to come to much, it was more a bit of fun for C. We have since sown a few carrots into a pot by the side of the house, and a last few into the raised bed. It’s been quite exciting watching the tops emerge and thrive but of course you don’t really get an idea of what the soil is hiding. 


One of the biggest pest risks to carrots is carrot fly. They are attracted to the scent of the carrots apparently (I never really smell carrots but apparently they have a scent which attracts the bugs). So it’s best to try and avoid disturbing the soil until you are pulling them up. When I was pulling them up though I was surprised that there really was a carrot smell. As they were so closely sown (and as I did no thinning whatsoever) there are some very interestingly shaped ones where they haven’t had enough space to really grow, but I still am very proud. I think we’ll just give them a clean and then cook them whole, unpeeled or maybe try them raw with some hummus. 




I think it will be a few more weeks until we can start harvesting our next batch but I think I would definitely plant a few more carrots next year. I don’t think we would ever manage to grow enough to be self sufficient in them (we do go through a lot) but we could certainly have a few little tasters during the year. Not bad for a packet of free seeds really (Grow your own magazine, Autumn King 2 variety for anyone who’s interested) and we still have plenty of seeds left for next year.