Fruit growing · Vegetable growing

The greenhouse

So this has been the first summer that we’ve had our greenhouse and I didn’t really have a proper plan for what I was growing, I’ve been fairly spontaneous with what I’ve grown. Our greenhouse is a good size and rather than be too ambitious and try and grow lots of different types of crops in it, I decided to focus primarily on tomatoes. Both C and I adore tomatoes and I love using tomatoes in my cooking. J isn’t as fussed at all about them but when we’ve grown them in hanging baskets in previous years he has admitted that they are nicer than shop bought so I’m hoping to convert him.

I’ve really used left over seeds this year and haven’t bought any new ones, partly as I hate waste and partly as I wouldn’t have a clue which ones to get. You may remember that spring in the UK was plagued by very cold weather and even some snow so my tomato seedlings didn’t get off to the best start. I planted them at the earliest recommended time and we had a rubbish amount of seeds actually sprout. I confess my watering was fairly sporadic and despite the greenhouse being heated the weather probably didn’t help. Anyway, after a very slow start I finally managed to get sufficient seedlings for the greenhouse bed.

Our greenhouse has, as do many others, a sectioned off bed down one side which we have filled with gravel and then laid our compost growbags on top of. Our growbags are in trays which are designed to help provide more consistent water to the plants. Each growbag contains space for three plants and we have a total of six growbags in our greenhouse, 18 plants. I do have one growbag with bell peppers in instead of tomatoes to give a bit of variety. Each growbag also has a plastic stake in it to support the plant as it grows.

I also have two hanging baskets with leftover tumbling tomato seeds in them and a good dozen or so pots with a variety which were fine to be grown in pots. Why so many you may ask? Well I did give away a fair few plants to friends but it seemed a waste to just bin seedlings that had sprouted so I accommodated as many as possible in the greenhouse. I do also have a rouge courgette in one of my growbags, more an experiment to see where they would grow best as I also have a couple outside. When everything was first planted it didn’t look that crowded and in fact I did think at one point that I wasn’t making good enough use of the space.

Well when everything started to flourish the whole greenhouse was taken over with green and it has looked rather wild. I did pinch out the side shoots a bit but probably not as much or as well as I should have but it’s my first year with a greenhouse so I still have lots to learn. It took ages for us to get any flowers on our plants and longer still for any of our tomatoes to actually ripen but once they did, they just didn’t stop. The warm weather this summer has undoubtably helped although it has meant watering up to twice a day.

The season isn’t over quite yet but we have had bucket loads of tomatoes. Most of the plants we have give cherry tomato sized produce but we do have a few giving us larger varieties. At first we were just eating them fresh as they ripened but there’s only so many tomatoes a trio can eat. One of the delights of homegrown is that you can preserve your goodies so you can enjoy that same great taste later in the year. I’ll write once all the tomatoes are done more about how I’ve preserved our harvest.

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Lazy beds · Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

Potatoes…what went right and what to change

We have now harvested all of our Spring planted potatoes and so I thought I would do a quick review about what went well and what to change for next year. So this year we grew our potatoes in growbags as opposed to last year when we used lazy beds. We had five different varieties:

  • Red Duke of York: we grew these successfully last year and they were just as good this year. My only complaint was they weren’t as large as I would have hoped but still a good size. This is probably due to harvesting too early but I was just so keen to get some potatoes. We’ll probably still grow these again next year.
    • Cara: these were our most prolific cropper this year. A really good harvest of decent size potatoes which taste amazing. A definite one to do again next year.
    • Pentland Javelin: our most disappointing crop this year. A small harvest both in quantity and size. Whilst it could have been down to the weather I don’t think we’ll do these again next year.
    • Charlotte: a good solid harvest. Decent size potatoes with good taste these are always a favourite in our house. We’ll do these again next year.
    • Pink Fir Apple: our first time growing these but we had them at a fellow gardener’s house and they were delicious. They have given us a really good crop of nice sized potatoes. Perfect just boiled and topped with butter. I think we’ll try these again next year.
  • Overall a very good year potato-wise, we barely lost any to pests or damage which was a big improvement on last year. The individual potatoes weren’t as large as last year which could either be down to being in bags as opposed to the ground or due to the weather. Our Autumn sown potatoes are in bags so they can be moved inside to avoid the cold (more about that another time) but next year I’ll have to work out whether to go for the ground or bags. Does anyone else grow potatoes? How do you grow them?
  • Fruit growing · Raised beds · Recipes · Vegetable growing

    Preserving our produce

    So I’ve previously mentioned that for some of our homegrown fruit and vegetables we have had a bit of a glut. Whilst we love all of our homegrown produce I can’t really stomach eating strawberries every meal or everyday for a week. There are some products that can be stored for prolonged periods of time in the right conditions but others need to be preserved in some other way. The main ways in which I preserve produce are either by freezing or by making jams and chutneys. I know that in the USA in particular caning is also a popular method but I don’t yet have the proper equipment for that. Today I thought I would go through a couple of the different ways I’ve preserved our produce this year. All the ingredients that were homegrown I’ve put in bold.

    Tomatoes

    Our tomatoes haven’t quite finished yet for the year so there will no doubt be more preserving to be done but so far this is what I’ve done.

    • Roasted vegetable pasta sauce; roast tomatoes, courgettes, onions and peppers in olive oil, then blend about half so the sauce still have some substance and season well. Then freeze as required.
    • Roasted tomato pesto: roast tomatoes in olive oil then add to basil, pine nuts, a couple of gloves of garlic, Parmesan and black pepper and blend in a food processor until fine. Add more olive oil until you achieve the desired consistency. Quantity-wise I tend to go for the same basil, pine nuts and Parmesan when I’m doing pesto with tomatoes, if not including tomatoes I’d have double the amount of basil to the other ingredients. Pesto is all about personal taste so just keep testing to find what you like best. You can also toast the pine nuts to emphasise the nutty flavour. Or change them up for a different type of nuts. Or switch the basil for spinach, or rocket leaves. Then portion up and freeze (it will store in the fridge for up to two weeks just make sure it’s covered with a film of oil to keep it fresh).
    • Freeze cherry tomatoes whole to defrost and cook fresh at a later date.
  • Strawberries
    • Strawberry jam: strawberry jam is notoriously hard to achieve a good set due to the low pectin level in strawberries. In order to achieve a good set you need to either mix it with another high pectin fruit or add pectin to it. I’ve gone with adding pectin as I wanted to keep the lovey freshness of the fruit. I’ve made a couple of different batches now using two different recipes, one of which was much more complicated and I couldn’t really see or taste much between them.
      Strawberry and yogurt lollies. A nice simple recipe, blend strawberries and Greek yogurt add to ice lolly mould and freeze. You can add a bit of honey if you want but I found our strawberries were sweet enough.
      Freeze whole: remove the stalks and wash then open freeze before bagging once frozen (this will prevent them from sticking together). I prefer to weigh before freezing and label the bag so I know how much to defrost.
      I also plan to use them in smoothies from frozen and make strawberry ice cream in the future too.
  • Potatoes
    • Potatoes store well in the ground but all gardeners have the dilemma of deciding when to pull them to avoid pest damage or damp ground. Once harvested brush off any loose soil and ideally leave the skins to dry for a few days. Then store in hessian sacks in a cool dry place. Check them periodically for damage and remove any damaged potatoes straight away.
      Potatoes cannot be frozen without being cooked first or their consistency changes too much. My favourite thing to do is to freeze potatoes as roasties. Par boil and then roast for about 20-30 minutes. Then cool and open freeze before bagging. They can then be taken out as required and put straight in the oven and will just need 20-30 minutes roasting. It certainly reduces some of the stress of a roast dinner.

    We still have lots to harvest and I’ve only looked at three different products here so I’ll do another post (or two) soon about some different ways to preserve homegrown produce.

    Lazy beds · Vegetable growing

    You can’t beat homegrown tatties

    Growing up we had a relatively small garden and gardening was never something which played much of a part in my life. I remember my late great uncle being into his garden and he tended a vegetable patch in his back garden. My grandfather also grew vegetables at home and took pride in his greenhouse. But although their passion interested me, I was never that bothered about having a garden of my own. In fact the first little flat which I bought by myself had no garden and that didn’t bother me in the slightest. How times have changed.

    Throughout the (very) hot summer that we’ve been having I have been watering my raised beds daily and my greenhouse twice a day. I still feel very much a novice vegetable grower and I have done things differently this year to last and will no doubt do things differently next year again. One thing which we have done differently this year is that we have grown all of our potatoes in growbags this year. Last year we grew them in lazy beds in the field but we lost a fair few to slugs so we decided to try and reduce that problem this year with the growbags. Last year we ended up planting all of our potatoes at the same time and planting them much later than intended so we ended up harvesting most of our tubers at the same time. This year I have aimed to be a bit better organised and planted the five varieties a bit more spaced out. So far we have harvested our Red Duke of York first earlies and our second early Charlotte’s.

    The Red Duke of York’s were smaller than last year but tasted just as delicious and we didn’t lose any to pest damage.

    The Charlotte’s were much better than last year. Last year we lost a lot to slugs and they were one of our weakest varieties. This year we’ve had a decent crop with no damage.

    The other three varieties left to harvest are Cara, Pink Fir Apple and Pentland Javelin. We should be harvesting them in the next few weeks. I’ve also started to plant our Christmas potatoes ready to enjoy in the depths of winter. With the very hot and dry weather we’ve had this year I’m not sure that our crops have been quite as prolific as they might have been and feel that with a bit more rain we would have had larger potatoes. However that is pure speculation and based upon no great gardening knowledge!

    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.

    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.