The Winter Blues

Date: January 18, 2013 2:03 pm Author: Jess Category: Thoughts from the Garden Shed

vegetable growing

Growing vegetables over winter?

You know, where growing vegetables is concerned, the stretch from late autumn to the shortest day seems to go on for ever. I have to confess most of my time has not been spent with my garden lovingly nursing the growing vegetables, but in the kitchen making all sorts of gorgeous stuff from last years produce and putting it in jars. Before Christmas you would have had more chance growing water lilies than growing vegetables in the garden with the rain we had and now look what greeted me this morning. Not exactly vegetable growing weather!

Still, last week we did have the first sunny days after the festive period and that same primeval force that was pushing up my snowdrops also started coursing through my veins. I ventured outside just like an excited young boy on Christmas morning to see what had been going on in the vegetable growing department over the last couple of months and I have to say I was not disappointed.

vegetable growing

Asparagus, ideal for growing vegetables over winter

The asparagus crowns are just starting to show. I did venture out at the beginning of December to cut back the old growth and top the soil off on their container, as the shoots had started to poke through. Now as you can see they are showing through nicely. This is their second year so they will be left this year with no cropping again to give the root system a good chance to mature. Next year though, whoopy, it will be full on cropping and loads of lovely succulent shoots.

vegetable container

Cabbages – perfect when growing vegetables over winter

Cabbages look good. It seems the full scale cat protection I had to erect last autumn has not only stood the weather but also kept the mangy critters at bay. By the look of these, if the weather gods are kind to us they will be ready for harvest in time to use the soil for some sort of summer crop – haven’t decided what yet.

growing vegetables

Look at that purple sprouting broccoli, got to be my favourite over winter crop. The flavour of home grown is absolutely divine and although mine are in a raised bed they are a great brassica to grow in a vegetable container

growing vegetables

And wow, garlic in abundance along with loads of poppy seedlings – a sure sign of freshly distrubed earth. For those that don’t know here comes some trivia. That is how the poppy became the amestise symbol. They grew in profusion in the distrubed earth of the battlefields or World War I.

growing vegetables

So, excitement over and a little smugness that everthing appears to have done as well if not better than expect, its time to open up the seed box, rummage around and plan for the year to come – armchair gardening, I love it. Nothing better than being snuggled up to the fire seed catalogue in one hand and a piece of toast in the other topped with my homemade lemon curd from my Gran’s old lemon curd recipe – can’t beat it!

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Trouble in the Cabbage Patch!

Date: November 4, 2012 5:09 pm Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips

growing cabbages

Growing cabbages can be a frustrating business!

Well I told you my blog site was going to be warts and all; that we were going to share the successes and the failures. Well here is the first failure! I’ve just returned from a week down on my boat in sunny old Lymington all refreshed and ready to face all the excitement growing cabbages over the autumn and winter months has to offer, only to find disaster in my cabbage nursery.

Those regular visitors to my blog will know that I sowed some seed in mid September so as to have seedlings ready for mid autumn to transplant into their containers and beds for over wintering. I planted Hero F1 hybrid for the standard green cabbage, as it gives a good solid heart, with not too much outside leaf. This is important when growing cabbages in containers because huge outside leaves take up so much space for very little gain. The cauliflower I chose was “All Year Round” a good old gardener’s favourite and then “Red Drumhead” for some lovely spring pickled red cabbage.

So with eager anticipation I went out to inspect what I expected to be three healthy rows of growing cabbages ready for transplantation only to find a scene of total disaster. Something had completely decimated the whole lot! Mostly, the plants had completely vanished but the picture up top shows what was left of the few survivors.

Now this is a fairly serious problem. What caused it is one thing; I have my suspicions and we will go into that and some other of god’s lovely creatures that inhabit our vegetable patches as a subject of another if not several blog posts. The point is a witch hunt or indeed bug hunt at this stage is not going to bring the cabbages back and the season I fear has gone too far for me to start growing cabbages again from scratch outside. So what to do?

Well, I shall try to see if I can outwit the season by planting some more seeds and giving them serious intensive care. Growing cabbages from seed is all about tender loving care. I shall plant them in individual podules and put them in my greenhouse to germinate and come on. I think I will then plant those seedlings in the containers in the greenhouse that the tomato plants will have come out of and grow them over winter in there. This will give them a chance to catch up and grow all winter hopefully being ready before I need the space again for the toms next year. You can be successful in growing cabbages in the greenhouse over winter if you chose the right type, keep the place well ventilated and don’t over water. I feel another blog post might be in the offing to cover this subject.

growing cabbages

The result – healthy growing cabbages!

However, for my outside raised bed I’m going to be even more radical. I love to do it all myself but I’m also a realist and not into cutting of my own nose to spite my face. Let’s face facts my seedlings have failed; do I say, “oh well I’m not growing cabbages this year then” or do I grow up, swallow my pride and head off to the garden centre – well of course I do. We are quite blessed on that front as our local garden centre is literally a mile or so up the road and, by enlarge, when it comes to growing cabbages and other over winter vegetables, is pretty much on the ball. Of course you do have to live with whatever variety they have decided to stock as seedlings which unfortunately isn’t always perfect for container vegetable gardening, but as these are going in my raised bed, space is not quite at such a premium.

So I’ll break off from this blog now and go and see what delights they have in store for me. It’s Sunday morning so I best get there early to beat the crowds

growing cabbages

Another result – the garden centre was still growing cabbages from seed

All’s well that ends well then; they had some lovely F1 “Duke” growing cabbages that are ideal for raised beds as they have nice compact cone shaped heads and not too much excess foliage. That does remind me though, before I go a quick word to the wise. Although commercial growers on the whole are pretty good with their disease control when growing cabbages and other brassicas from seed, I always make sure I treat both my home grown and bought plants with a club root preparation before planting out. You know what, I think I’ll make a little video to show you what I do and make the process the subject of another blog. So “stay tuned folks” as Warner Brothers used to say and happy cabbage growing!

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Autumn Planting Broad Beans

Date: October 23, 2012 4:46 pm Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips
growing broad beans

Growing broad beans from autumn planting

Broad beans are one of those things that can taste completely divine when small, juicy and tender; or absolutely inedible when hard, over large and over ripe. Growing broad beans is the simplest way to ensure you only ever get to eat the former, since leaving yourself at the mercy of supermarket produce will yield mixed results at best. Luckily, growing broad beans can be done in both the spring and autumn so with a little bit of careful planning, you can assure yourself of a good, almost year round, season of growing broad beans to feast upon.

If you’ve already grown broad beans this year and have some seeds left over, exercise a little bit of caution before you get stuck in. Not all broad beans are created equal! Some are best for spring, some for autumn. There are some lucky types that will do well in any weather, but for late autumn planting you really are best advised to go with an over-wintering variety. I only ever use one variety, Aquadulce claudia. As usual click on the name and it will take you straight to my preferred supplier. I never cease to be amazed at how hardy they are. Last year the plants were under snow in temperatures of -5 Celsius for at least two weeks and still 50% of them survived. I don’t recommend you treat your plants like that but it does go to show!

Once you’ve got your seeds sorted out, the next decision is whether you want to plant straight out or would prefer to start your beans off in a covered seed tray or propagator. If it’s the latter, simply pop one bean in each module, covering to a depth of about ½ an inch, then top up the soil, pat very gently indeed, water well and then leave under a cold frame or in the greenhouse. You’ll need to water them once a week or so to keep things nice and moist, and you can expect to wait about 2 to 3 weeks before things start shooting and a bit longer still before planting out.

If you’d rather skip the extra work, planting straight out into a raised bed or container will be fine, even as late as November. Dig a trench and space out your beans to avoid over-crowding. If you suffer from mice eating your seeds a little trick, or gift of the season, is to cut off some holly leaves to drop into the trench alongside the beans. They won’t interfere with the growing but they will keep little gnawing mouths at bay… in a “kind to nature” sort of way.

After that, simply cover over and water in well. Broad beans will get off to a great start under a polytunnel or cloche but if you don’t have one spare and are expecting a fairly mild winter, as mentioned before they’ll do fine uncovered too.

Come next year, you’ll be wanting to get canes in place nice and early to support your growing broad beans if they are in a raised bed. Put a cane at each end of the row and run string round them trapping the plants in between; putting a new string support in for every six or so inches of growth. If you’re growing your beans in a container like I do then supporting them is even easier.

As you can see from the picture taken today my broad bean container is currently being used as a strawberry runner nursery! However, when I get five minutes they, hopefully having produced some good roots, will go into their final containers leaving my broad bean container free for its intended purpose – growing broad beans! I will plant them straight into the soil and pin a sheet of polythene over the top until early spring. Now, see the four post sticking up, well they are just screwed onto the container and as the growing broad beans get higher and higher I just wrap gardening string round the four posts, and across the diagonals if necessary, to support the growing plants. This method is simplicity itself and really demonstrates the versatility of wooden containers.

growing broad beans

My wooden container for growing broad beans

Growing broad beans over winter should mean that you get a really good, early crop of beans. As I said at the start, the really important thing is to pick your beans whilst they’re still young and tender. If you go away and miss the boat, or like me, actually do go away on a boat and sometimes regret missing the best of my beans, don’t despair. Rubbing them to remove the tough outer skin will get rid of much of the toughness and prevent them causing the wind that they have a reputation for! After all, any of you who’ve been around long enough to remember the tale of my ‘fartichokes’ will know that we hardly need any extra ‘wind encouragement’ in our household.

Like all of my autumn planting suggestions, getting these in over winter really does feel a bit like cheating the season so, even if you’re yet to be converted to the joys to be had, make this the year to get started growing broad beans. They’re delicious on their own, in salads, or mushed up as a lovely topping for bruschetta. Enjoy!

Growing broad beans is easy!

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The Crowning Glory

Date: October 11, 2012 2:52 pm Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips

growing asparagus

My first year of growing asparagus

Many people have said that gardening is good for the soul, in fact, many happiness checklists or self help books suggest growing something as a way to stave off depression and encourage positive emotions. My vegetable garden certainly makes me happy, but if I had to choose a single thing that it’s taught me over the years, it would have to be patience. And never has this been more true than where growing asparagus is concerned.

Now I have to confess that asparagus is one of my favourite vegetables. When I lived in the US it was so abundant that you could get a huge bundle of the freshest spears for less than a dollar. That was a while ago, but its availability at the time cemented my love for its unique flavour and that has never waned. I have to confess though I am one of those that it affects in the waterworks department. I can certainly attest that it is not called “The Chambermaids Curse” for nothing. Strange isn’t it how so many vegetables have weird effects on our bodily functions!

So having got the lavatory exploits that us Brits are so prone to dwell on out of the way, we can get down to the business of growing asparagus. As I alluded to, it’s a process that requires much in the way of patience since you’re unlikely to taste your first harvest until 3 years after your first asparagus crowns go in!

I say asparagus crowns since that’s by far and away the best way of growing asparagus. Growing from seed is a little more challenging and a lot more time consuming, so get hold of some healthy crowns and get your asparagus growing off to the best possible starts.

When choosing crowns, you’re looking for something that looks rather like a giant octopus. In fact, if I came across one on my boat I’d likely run for cover. They should be dry but flexible, steer well clear of any that easily snap or break and try not to play around too much with the crowns before getting them safely in the ground. I think it is of paramount importance with an investment of this sort to source it from a really good supplier. Growing asparagus is not like growing radish where from buying a packet of seeds to having forgotten you even ate the finished product takes 8 weeks; this crown is going to last and give pleasure for many years. It will come as no shock to regulars that the crowns in my garden have come from Thompson and Morgan. I have got Pacific 2000 as my standard variety and Pacific Purple just to give a little change of colour. Both are great croppers and seem very hardy. As ever just click on the variety names above and it will take you straight there. Yes growing asparagus is a little pricey but remember, if well looked after the 10 crowns you get for your money will give you more than enough asparagus to keep your family going for the season, year after year.

Growing asparagus is best in a raised bed

Growing asparagus is best done in a permanent raised bed. You need a patch of about 50cm square per crown. In the centre of the patch dig a hole of about 15cm deep and a few centimetres larger than the diameter of your crown. Lie the asparagus crown on the bottom, shoot nodules pointing upwards, and gently spread the roots out to prevent them coiling up in a tangle. Cover them over, pad down gently then spread over a good thick layer of mulch. You won’t need much by way of fertiliser at this time of year, since the plant will be largely dormant for a while, but some liquid root feed would make a welcome addition to the water you use to bed them in.

Now for those who don’t have the space growing asparagus in containers is quite feasible. The picture at the top of the article shows a very satisfactory end result. All you need is a container that will last – remember growing asparagus is a long term project. Ideally the container needs to be about half a metre wide and over a metre high; fill it with potting compost to within about 30cm of the top and just follow the procedure outlined above.

The first year, your asparagus crown will probably throw up one of two heads. You’ll be tempted to cut them off and tuck in but don’t. To encourage the best possible harvest in the long term, you need to wait until the third year before cutting any crop. Let the heads grow to full size, they will look like long feathery ferns, and die back naturally.

growing asparagus

My first growing asparagus shoot

By year two, your crown will have turned into three or four heads and if you let that grow up tall – to about 6ft sometimes – and die back down, by year three you’ll hopefully have a healthy four or five heads to harvest from, which will help secure and sustain your growing asparagus crown for many tasty years to come.

It seems a little cruel to tempt you with what you can do with the fruits of you asparagus bed, given that it will be so long before you get to have a go, but believe me, it’s worth the wait. Asparagus taste wonderful steamed until just tender. They take Asian style marinades and sauces really well, or they’re lovely wrapped in Parma ham or with a little hollandaise sauce. It’s really up to you how you cook them but if you’re anything like me don’t breath too deep when you go to spend a penny or the “Chambermaids Curse” will have your eyes watering!

Remember growing asparagus is an investment in time – so be patient, its worth it!!

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Get That Garlic Going!

Date: October 6, 2012 4:41 pm Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips

growing garlic

The spoils of growing garlic in the autumn

Despite the fact that I’ve talked a lot about autumn tidy ups and generally getting everything ready for a new growing season next year, autumn doesn’t have to be just about clearing up and preparing for the future. In my own little slice of paradise, I’ve been busy toiling away on a new raised bed which will hopefully bring some delicious rewards throughout the next year, but to break up my hard labour, I’ve also been getting down to some autumn planting.

There’s something about autumn planting that feels a little bit magical, a little bit like you’re cheating the seasons as it were. When winter is upon us and snow has covered the ground there’s nothing better than looking out on the garden and knowing that, deep within the soil, nature is working to produce next year’s harvest.

Growing garlic is one of the best things about autumn. As garlic genuinely loves a really long slow growing season, you actually get better results at this time of year, than if you plant in the spring. Planting out in autumn will mean you have to wait until late spring the following year to taste your handiwork but it will be worth it, I promise, so here are my tips for growing garlic.

First things first, growing garlic from the bulbs you can buy in the supermarket is a non-started. These bulbs come from much warmer climes than ours and won’t stand the cruel British winter. Instead, make sure you buy bulbs from a reputable seed distributor that will help your garlic growing get off to a great start. Last year I used “Germidour” it was a new one to me, but it came highly recommended for autumn growing garlic, and you can see from the top picture the results were prodigious and I must also say delicious. I got it from Thompson & Morgan as usual and it was delivered bang on time. If you fancy a go at “Germidour” for your garlic growing this year then just click here and it will take you straight to the right page in the T & M catalogue.

For me this year I’m going back to an old favourite “Iberian Wight.” The reason being that although I have no quibble with the quantity or flavour of the Germidour, I did find the cloves a little small for my tastes. You will find growing garlic variety “Iberian Wight” gives you a nice big clove which suits my culinary purposes. If you fancy a slightly bigger clove then just click here to purchase your Iberian Wight.

So once you’ve got your garlic bulbs, you will need to prepare your ground. You’re aiming for a soil that’s hard enough to keep a hole from filling in, but free from large lumps and bumps.

Take your bulb and separate out the individual cloves. Plant the cloves in a dibbed hole to twice their own depth leaving 4 inches between each clove, then simply firm the soil over with your hand.

Healthy growing garlic likes a sunny spot which will be a challenge, I know, at this time of the year but it is something worth bearing in mind when the weather improves. Growing garlic is also best achieved in well drained soil so try and avoid the area becoming water logged.

growing garlic

The first sign of your growing garlic

Once you’ve planted your cloves there’s really not much else to do, save for keeping the top of the soil weed free and make sure they are kept moist. If the green shoots are through then at any sign of frost just cover them with newspaper or polythene overnight. I’ve actually planted mine in my new raised bed this year, so I’m going to put a cloche over them for most of the winter so they’re nice and snug. This should also bring them forward a little, because as you know I’m for ever impatient!

growing garlic

How it should look early spring – preferably minus the weeds!

Now come next year, your crop of fragrant garlic will be ready to harvest late spring and you can spot when it’s ready by watching for the leaves to turn yellow. Once you’ve harvested the bulbs, make sure you leave them out to dry for a while before storing but if you fancy yourself as a bit of a culinary whizz, use them in cooking straight away. Apparently, top chefs prize ‘wet’ garlic for its depth of flavour.

Mmm… I can almost smell the aroma of garlic roasting in the oven alongside some chicken thighs, red peppers and new potatoes, creating a one pan dinner that is as simple as you like, but as delicious as can be. Garlic really is the magic bullet when it comes to cooking, turning simple flavours into wonderful ones so take my advice and plant out plenty now. You won’t regret it when you’re enjoying rich, creamy sauces, or gorgeous roasted summer vegetables, all enhanced by a lovely homemade, garlicky taste… and you’ll have help warding off the vampires too.

growing garlic

Pickled perfection – what more could you want from growing garlic?

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Propagating Strawberry Runners

Date: October 4, 2012 10:34 am Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips

growing strawberries

Growing strawberries is so easy!

A gardener’s relationship with nature is a strange one. Sometimes we’re trying to speed things up, sometimes we’re trying to slow things down and sometimes we’re just standing back in awe and amazement. When it comes to growing strawberries it’s a combination of wonder at just how efficient these creeping plants are at self-propagating and greed as we try and speed it all up to guarantee another year’s bumper crop of delicious strawberries.

At home this year we’ve been enjoying a really successful season of growing strawberries, with more than enough for ourselves, friends and family and even some left over to indulge my passion for jam making. Part of the reason we’ve been so well fed is the careful groundwork that I put in each year preparing new plants for next season.

The nature of growing strawberries

Strawberries are creeping plants by nature. They like to creep forward, putting out runners that then blossom into brand new strawberry plants. Left to their own devices, the old plants gradually fade away and the new ones start to flourish. It’s a wonder of nature, but one we’d like to fast-forward just a little, when growing strawberries ourselves, in order to boost the size of the crop. By taking the daughter plants off the runners and planting them yourself, removing the old parent plants as you go, you can guarantee you’ll get the maximum fruit production from each plant. Done early enough – early September is about the right time – the new plants will be hardy enough to last through winter and you won’t need to end up messing about with greenhouses or frost protection. Once established, good healthy growing strawberries can put up with anything the UK climate can throw at them.

To prepare your strawberry plants for next year, simply follow these easy steps and if you feel like watching a real-life demo you’ll find one on my YouTube channel, My Container Gardening.

How to propagate runners when growing strawberries

  1. First of all pick a runner to work with. Choose one with a healthy looking daughter plant or two already formed. Make sure that some roots have already sprouted from the bottom of the daughter plants. If the daughter plants only have small nodules on the base, push them into a damp bit of soil with the runner still attached and leave for a couple of weeks for roots to start to grow.
  2. growing strawberries

  3. Next, choose a spot for your new plant to grow. If you’re recycling your existing containers then this will be where the existing parent plant is growing. You’ll need to pull up the old plant and dig the soil over to loosen things up a bit. You can leave some of the roots behind though; they’ll rot down nicely over the winter to add to the soil’s rich nutrients.
  4. growing strawberries

  5. Once you have an area ready, cut the runner either side of the new daughter plant, leaving a little bit of runner on either side to help anchor it.
  6. growing strawberries

  7. Then, it’s simply a case of planting it securely into the hole, firming up the soil around it and deciding whether or not you need to give them a quick water. Chances are that at this time of year some rain is not far around the corner so they’ll probably make do until nature takes it course. The better established the root system of the daughter plant the less tender loving care they will need . If your daughters have little root make sure they are watered well. They may well droop and look sickly for a while but they should pick up in a few weeks.
  8. growing strawberries

Your new plants should manage to fit in a fair bit of growing before the winter sets in, meaning that they will be nice and hardy once the really cold weather comes. Just one word of warning… despite the absolute simplicity of planting out strawberry runners, it does pay to have a systematic approach that ensures that you plant the daughter plants of one variety in the same container as the parents came from. Take your eye of the ball and instead of a nice orderly progression from early’s to late’s you’ll have a hotchpotch of plants that are impossible to manage.

But really, that’s as hard as it gets with growing strawberries. Why not pop straight over to my YouTube strawberry planting video for a final primer and then get out into the garden to sow the seeds, or rather plant the plants, for next year’s bumper crop of strawberries.

By the way, as you can see from my video, I just use good old potting compost bags when I’m growing strawberries, and I have to say I do get a bit of stick from the other half as they don’t look exactly pretty. There are of course many commercially available and slightly more attractive containers you might want to consider for growing strawberries yourself. Remember the fruit will taste so much nicer if eaten in marital bliss – lol!!

Also, don’t forget to visit my strawberry jam recipe on youtube to make good use of all those lovely strawberries you grow.

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Welcome to My Veg Patch

Date: October 1, 2012 12:46 pm Author: Jess Category: Thoughts from the Garden Shed

vegetable gardening

Vegetable Gardening & Me!

Starting this blog got me thinking, “where did I get my interest in vegetable gardening.” I reckon the answer is simple – my grandmother. As a tot I used to watch her fascinated as she would fanatically cram plants into anything that would hold soil! Not vegetables I grant you, infact mostly geraniums but they would be unceremoniously plonked into anything from empty margarine cartoons to old watering cans. The amazing thing is though with a little TLC they grew and grew well. Looking back my gran used many of the secrets I later found out for myself and am going to pass on to you, for your vegetable gardening exploits – those oldens knew a thing or two!

At the tender age of five I moved with the whole family down to Lymington in Hampshire. For those that don’t know and my friends across the pond, Lymington is a quaint old seafaring town right slap bang in the middle of the south coast of England. Back then it was a sleepy little hollow with working boats coming and going from the picturesque quay. Today however it’s very different; a high class and very desirable area – in fact it has just been voted the number one seaside town to live in the UK, two years in a row – I diagress! The reason for my telling you this has little to do with Lymington and lots to do with the garden I suddenly found my self playing and growing up in. Gone was the large expanse that was our garden in the leafy suburbs of London and instead there was nothing much larger than a postage stamp stuck at the back of the shop my mother had insisted we bought and hence our reason for our moving to Lymington.

What on earth has this got to do with vegetable gardening I hear you cry – not a lot so far, but bear with it, the second 10,000 words get better – lol! Seriously thought, it was in this tiny garden between the ages of 5 and 14 that I started to get my introduction to how plants and vegetables could be successfully grown in confined spaces. Everything, I kid you not, from fir trees 20 feet high to strawberry plants were grown in that little place all in containers none bigger than a couple of feet across and the same deep – it was a neccesity. And so it was that my family through trial and plenty of error learned the art of vegetable gardening and I as a growing lad developed what has turned out to be a life long passion for the pursuit.

So why the vegetable gardening blog?

Now many years, countries, careers and gardens later, I find myself once again with a small patch to call my own and have rekindle all the tricks of old to transform what space I have into a highly productive garden, producing all might and manner of goodies from courgettes to strawberries, and all of them in containers or raised beds. Now as some of you know a lot of my produce is used to fuel my love of preserving which I already share with the world through my website “Pickles, Jams & Preserves.” So it dawned on me wouldn’t it be fun to incorporate my love of gardening with my love of preserving and put together a little veg patch ramble to add to “Pickles, Jams & Preserves” so I can share some of the methods I use with you guy’s and prehaps encourage you to grow some of your own fruit and veg for preserving or even heaven forbid eating fresh if there’s any left over!/p>

So why not join me in some vegetable gardening exploits? Were going to look at lots of novel ways of making raised beds and containers, both permenant and disposable, how to best propogate your plants from seed, how to nurture your vegetable garden with the least effort and the equipment we use to make our life that much easier. There’s going to be reviews of vegetable gardening products, a hints and tips section and somewhere for you to leave your bright ideas for us to share.

So guys, welcome to my little veg patch and please feel free to leave all the comment you like. Any suggestion are always well received and I’ll try and reply to as many queires and questions as you put to me. I’m always available on so go head and email me today!

Let’s get vegetable gardening!

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Growing Onions from Sets in Autumn

Date: September 30, 2012 4:57 pm Author: Jess Category: Growing Tips
growing onions

Growing onions from sets starts here!

There are some fruits and vegetables that simply ooze summer sun; strawberries, cool cucumbers and peas popping juicily out of the pod all mean summer to me. Just imagining that sort of harvest fills my mind with sunny days and scorching heat. Similarly, bringing in the pumpkins or squash means autumn and Halloween. The leafy greens like broccoli and sprouts seem perfectly matched to cold afternoons snatched in the garden in between showers, before settling down for the evening in front of the fire.

In truth, most vegetables have an ideal season, a time when they are at their most sublime, but some, more than others, also become year round staples; the type of ingredients we just can’t do without, whether we’re cooking slow, comforting stews or light sauces to be enjoyed with a crisp salad. Growing onions, more than anything, provide this type of essential ingredient.

There’s hardly a day goes by in our kitchen without my wife or I chopping an onion to add to a recipe. So it’s just as well, when growing onions, that they take to over-wintering. They can be planted, ideally in sets, even as autumn is setting in, to guarantee a good spring harvest before main crop varieties start to yield their prizes.

Growing onions in containers is actually pretty straightforward. Any container will do, although the fact that some sort of cloche or covering will be useful to start them off might mean you’d do well to choose a container that lends itself to being covered. Personally, I almost always build wooden containers when growing onions as they can be hammered into at will, whenever I need to erect a cold frame, or net to keep the weather or pests at bay.

Once you’ve chosen your ideal container for growing onions in, fill it with compost to just below the top. It’s great if the compost is slightly wet as it will reduce the need for watering, but if that’s the case be sure to break up any large lumps before planting. Just as with preparing soil for garlic planting, you’re aiming for slightly firm compost that will keep a hole that you’ve made with a finger, rather than letting the sides fall in.

Japanese onion sets are the best choice for autumn onion growing. They do well over winter and at this time of year you really need to be using sets – which are simply small onion bulbs – rather than seeds. Sets ensure your growing onions get off to the best possible start which is particularly important when you’re working against the weather, as it were.

Now there are all kinds of varieties available with pros and cons to them all, but my two favourites are “Electric” and “Senshyu.” The “Electric” is a red onion with a lovely mild and sweet flavour that comes ready just at the time we start to get a hint of warmth back in the weather and want to add red onions raw to the first salads of the year. “Senshyu” on the other hand is a standard white onion and a real work horse. In fact it was one of the first Japanese varieties, that have now become so popular for over wintering, to come over to the UK. Both are pretty hardy, disease resistant and not to prone to bolting. As usual I got my sets through good old Thompson and Morgan, and if you want to order yours just click here on either Electric or Senshyu and it will take you straight there.

So once you’ve settled on your variety, arrange your bulbs on top of the compost, using a staggered formation to maximise the use of space. I’ve found from much trial and error, when growing onions from sets, you can actually grow them far closer together than the experts suggest so don’t be afraid to make the most of the space you have available. But do make sure they have a 2″ radius all round them. This will allow for a 4″ onion which is about the size you will want to harvest them anyway to ensure you avoid bolting.

When growing onions biggesst is not always best!

Now with growing onions from sets, biggest is not always best. The larger the onion set the more likely it is to bolt. So don’t discard the small set, but obviously make sure they are healthy before putting them in. If in any doubt put two side by side. If you tend your plot like I do mine, you will soon see which of the two is healthiest and, at the earliest possible stage, discard the other so as not to disturb the healthy one. This technique means you should never be left with a gap where a set has failed. This kind of nurturing is so important in container gardening as optimisation is the key. We always need to maximise the yield from the minimum of space.

Once you’ve arranged the sets on the top of your container push them into the soil so as the tip of the set is just showing above ground. Then give the soil around the set a light push just to firm it in ever so slightly. Do make sure it is only the tip that is showing, because when you water them, as you surely must after planting, the soil will shrink back a little to expose more of the set anyway. If you plant them to high there is a danger of washing them out of the ground when you water.

growing onions

Correct planting of sets when growing onions

Birds will love the challenge of pecking out newly planted bulbs so covering them is a good idea. A simple net will keep the birds at bay, but a cloche will give a welcome warmth and boost early growth so I’d recommend using one if at all possible.

After that, not much is required, save for some weeding every now and again to keep the soil clear and some pleasurable winter evenings sat planning recipes with your cookbooks gathered all around. They won’t be ready to harvest until about May next year, by which time your mouth will be literally watering at the thought of such delights as French onion soup, onion tart or gravy and of course the myriad of beautiful casseroles that benefit from that rich, deep taste. Try cooking some down into an onion marmalade too, to use with cheese and crackers, or as an extra special base for a stew or sauce. The one lovely thing about growing onions is they never seem to go to waste!

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