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. 

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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. 

Raised beds · Vegetable growing

Broad beans

So the broad beans were really J’s idea. He is a big fan of them and has been really keen to grow some beans but as our final bed was rather late getting filled we’d had to pick up whatever plants we could find to grow rather than starting them off ourselves from seed. Hence we’ve ended up with broad beans. Now I’ve not really given them much attention at all apart from including them on my usual nightly watering. A month or so ago I saw that they had flowers appearing and shortly after I discovered they were being ravaged by aphids.


I told J to give them some attention (spraying with diluted washing up liquid is supposed to get rid of them) but I don’t think he got round to it as we had a fair bit on trying to sort the cabin. For future reference it is recommended that you pinch out the tops of the plants once the flowers develop to help prevent nasties. No matter as they seemed to dissipate on their own  (helped I feel by the ladybirds I spotted on the corn) and I noticed the pods begin to develop. 


Now as I’m not an experienced broad bean consumer I had to look up how to know when to harvest them. You can either harvest when they are about 3 inches long to consume the pods whole or you can wait until the beans are clearly visible to shell them and consume whole. Consensus seems to be that if you leave them so long that the line down the spine turns black then the beans will be inedible. 

We didn’t really have enough to make a meal out of when we picked our first batch a couple of weeks ago so we shelled them (great activity for a toddler) and blanched and froze them for a future meal when we have some more picked. 


Raised beds · Vegetable growing

Baby corn harvest

This year we were very late in getting our raised beds built and filled, so we ended up being too late in the Spring to plant some of the seeds we’d originally hoped for. So on one of our frequent weekend trips to the garden centre we picked up some seedlings  that they had leftover. We went for mini pop sweetcorn. It is a baby corn variety, designed to be picked and consumed when the cobs are about 10-15cm long. Sweetcorn is a big favourite with C although she does tend to prefer the ‘normal sized’ variety. However, babycorn holds a special place in J’s heart. J lost his mum when he was very young to cancer and one of his memories of her is when he visited her in hospital and she gave him her babycorn from her dinner plate. He’d never seen babycorn before and it always reminds him of his mum now. So growing our own babycorn is something quite special for us. 

Now whilst normal corn is fairly easy to determine when to harvest (the tassels turn brown) for babycorn it seems to be a little bit more vague.  

These are the male parts of the plant, which some seem to suggest aren’t needed for mini pop but others imply are still necessary. 


And these are the tassels and indicate where each cob is.

Now all my research has said that if the tassels turn brown then they will be too far gone and will taste bad. So you have to harvest them when the tassel are still pale and you are aiming for the corn to be about 10-15cm long. Which is all very well and good, but how on earth are you supposed to know when they are that length without harvesting some? Well we decided to test one out today. We slowly peeled back the leaves (well it wasn’t really a peeling but a tearing) to reveal this.



My daughter was so excited to discover it, that is what has really made growing our own vegetables enjoyable giving her these wonderful childhood experiences. So tomorrows job is to harvest some more and then blanch and freeze them as they are best enjoyed when picked fresh on the day. I’ll be interested to see how many we get, as one doesn’t really give a meal!


Lazy beds · Vegetable growing

Potato storage and preserving

Now because of timings in creating our lazy beds we ended up planting all of our potatoes at the same time. We had six varieties: red duke of York (first earlies), Charlotte (second earlies), Maris Peer (second earlies), Maris Piper (early maincrop), Purple Majesty (maincrop) and King Edward (large maincrop). Now the theory is that they should be ready in sequence, which they haven’t all been, and even if they do spread themselves out a bit more, we had 1kg of seed potatoes of each variety so we’re going to end up with a lot of potatoes. An awful lot. We started pulling them up the other week but to be honest we didn’t really think it through and just started pulling up those where the foliage was dying back. We did stop but not before we had a vast haul. My wonderful husband then proceeded to help out (as good husband always do) and started cleaning them ready for use. 


It wasn’t until later when I did a bit of reading about homegrown potatoes that I realised we probably hadn’t done the right thing with our harvest if we were wanting a good storage period. The best thing to do is to pull up the plant and harvest any potatoes that are attached. 


Then ensure any potatoes still in the ground are still well covered with soil and leave for a couple of weeks for the skins to set. This will make them firmer and better able to withstand storage. Instead, some people, will harvest and let them dry out in the sun. I’ve opted to leave them in the ground. 


Now you can, in theory, harvest just what is needed when it’s needed. Or, if you are concerned about possible pest damage, then harvest and store in a dark, cool place. Most people opt for brown paper bags or hessian sacks for this purpose. Then only wash when you are ready to use. 

When it comes to preserving potatoes then the freezer is your best friend. Potatoes can’t be frozen raw so they need to be processed in some way first. I’m a big fan of my freezer and tend to do lots of batch cooking for my freezer. So far with our first harvest of potatoes I have done some roast potatoes: parboiled and tossed in flour and lard, then open frozen before bagging, they can then be popped straight into the oven from frozen to crisp up. They make delicious roasties and it’s easy to just take out the number you need. 


We’ve also tried doing a potato bake: sliced potato and onion in layers in a dish, then covered in stock (I prefer chicken stock for the taste), season (I use salt, pepper and a little thyme from the garden) then bake until the potatoes are cooked (about 40 minutes). We used purple majesty potatoes for this and have frozen in the dish and covered with foil. When we’re going to use it we will take it out the day before use (or on the day, but then it will take longer to cook) and cover with a sprinkling of cheese and bake for 15 mins. It doesn’t look particularly appetising now, but I promise it is delicious and fairly healthy (without the cheese). 


I also love to do a few baked potatoes in the oven when I have space then they can be frozen in foil and either defrosted in the microwave (remove the foil) or the oven relatively quickly for a proper baked potato taste in a rush. What does anyone else do to use up potatoes? I need some more inspiring ideas.