Beansprouts

Short version:

You can grow beansprouts from the dried mung beans that you buy for cooking. Growing just requires soaking overnight, draining in the morning and then rinsing and draining twice a day. Sprouts are ready to eat within a week.

I have never cooked using mung beans myself, though I have eaten plenty of things containing mung beans cooked by others, especially by my mum. In fact, the only times I’ve only ever bought mung beans were to grow beansprouts. Beansprouts are easily grown at home in a jar from the dried mung beans available in any large supermarket.

How to grow

Find a clean a jar (sterilising using a hot wash in the dishwasher is fine or washing in very hot soapy water will do). Yay for reusing and then recycling afterwards anyway. Please make sure your hands are clean when dealing with the sprouts. Add about a centimetre of dried mung beans, cover with water and soak overnight. The next morning drain.

Then every morning and evening rinse the beans with water, always pouring off as much excess as possible. The most easy way of doing this is to cover the top of the jar with a bit of old tights (clean ones of course) or cheese cloth, secured with an elastic band. All you have to do then is add water through the cloth and then drain through the cloth.

Really easy. Takes about half a minute each time. BUT… the sprouts you grow will be all curly and wibbly. This is because every time you tip the jar to drain you will change the orientation of the beans. The direction it is growing its roots in will constantly be changing.

There is another way to grow beansprouts that take a bit more prep. The daily rinsing and draining are as quick and easy though.

You need a plastic container. Poke or drill 5 – 20 holes in the base of the container, depending on its size and the size of your holes. You can use a bradawl (make sure it’s clean though – I wouldn’t put our old filthy bradawl anywhere near this project) or a heated pin. I have a woodburning tool that is really speedy. You also need something that can sit on top of the beans that is around the same size and shape of the container and a weight of some sort. I found this green flexible Tupperware lid and a weight from my fermenting kit. You will also need a tray or plate to collect any remaining water draining through the bottom.

You do this so that you keep the beans in place when they get rinsed. The roots will always (for most of them) be pointing down. The holes at the bottom mean that you never need to tip the container to drain the beans. The weight on top helps hold them in place, but it also gives something for the growing beans to push against. This makes the root thicker. Using this method, you will get straighter thicker beansprouts.

However, it is still hard to get beansprouts that look as lovely as the ones you get in the supermarket. Still, they are fresh, nutritious, low in calories, high in fibre and protein and you can still get them without going to the shop. You just need to get hold of mung beans first, but they keep for ages if stored well.   

Within a week you will have beansprouts. If you’re not ready to eat them after a week, you should give them a good wash and put them in the fridge as the tips will start to go brown.

How to eat

You can literally wash them and stir fry them, add them to noodles or soups. My favourite is to make fresh pickles. You blanch them till thoroughly cooked and add a dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar (cider or balsamic is nice). You can also add a tiny bit of honey (or pinch of brown sugar) to sweeten.

At this stage they still had great texture in what was left of the bean. That part was nutty and sweet. The white root bit tasted fresh and juicy and had that crispness that you get in apples. The root doesn’t have a strong flavour. It was a bit lettuce like. The overall beansprout was a lovely addition to a lunch and the four year old even ate a few of the plain blanched ones. This particular batch was used in 3 meals.

WARNING!

I haven’t said chuck them in a salad. Unfortunately, the lovely warm environment that suits the growing of sprouts also suits unwelcome listeria, E.coli and salmonella. For safety it is best that you cook beansprouts rather than eat them raw in salads. This is the NHS advice here.

This applies to shop bought sprouts as well as home grown ones, unless they are labelled ready to eat. Some producers can take steps to ensure no harmful bacteria exists. I don’t know what those are, maybe they are irradiated or maybe the growing of the actual mung beans themselves is done under more sterile conditions. I’m afraid it isn’t a matter of technique. It’s to do with the bacteria that may exist on the beans. You have probably kept everything clean and looked after it well, but all it takes is for there to be one harmful bacterium on one of the dried mung beans. You can’t treat them to kill the bacteria as you will then kill the seed. The warm, damp environment is suitable for the pathogens. Luckily, cooking will kill them so feel free to sprout, COOK and eat!

Other sprouts

You can also sprout a plethora of other seeds. I’ve found this fun looking website that sells seeds specifically for sprouting:

https://www.wholesale.molesseeds.co.uk/sprouting_seeds/

I’m afraid I have never used the company so I don’t know personally if they are any good. I have eaten and like soya bean sprouts and alfalfa but I have only ever sprouted mung beans and I have the mung beans in my house at this time so I will continue to do so whilst stuck at home. If I get around to buying and sprouting any of the others, I shall let you know. Of if you have grown any that you recommend, please feel free to share in the comments.

Sweet potato leaves

Short version:

Not like the poisonous leaves of the potato, sweet potatoes can be grown for their sweet and juicy, spinach like, leaves and shoots. They can be grown from an existing shop bought organic sweet potato. These perennials like sunny, but not dry conditions and won’t survive a typical UK winter outside. Fertile soil will give you lots of leafy growth.

Taste

Despite their similarity in producing tubers that can be eaten and used for propagation, sweet potatoes (Latin name Ipomoea batatas) are very different to our normal potatoes (Latin name Solanum tuberosum). Potato plants, of the nightshade (or Solanaceae) family, have poisonous leaves. Even a tuber that gone green from exposure to sunlight can be poisonous. The leaves of the sweet potato, however, are edible, tasty and useful as a cut and come again leafy green. Blanched or lightly fried they are sweet and juicy and a little spinach like. Raw they can be a little bitter. Sweet potatoes themselves can be used like potatoes and are, of course, sweeter. I think they taste like a cross between a pumpkin and a potato with the texture of potatoes.

How to start growing

If you buy sweet potato plants to grow the tubers, you buy them as sweet potato ‘slips’. These are small shoots removed from a growing tuber. They’re not particularly cheap, but you are more likely to get varieties that will grow well in your climate. You can grow plenty of your own sweet potato slips from a shop bought sweet potato. The only proviso is that you need to buy an organic potato. Sweet potatoes are often treated to stop them from sprouting. Another issue you may face is that the variety you grow slips from may be from growing conditions that you do not have yourself. Because I was never expecting to be able to grow sweet potatoes, I was only growing for the leaves, this wasn’t an issue.

You fill the jam jar with water and wait. It is sometimes recommended that you change the water every couple of days, but I didn’t. In very hot weather, if the water evaporates quickly, the water will need to be topped up. They can sprout rather quickly.

That last photo was exactly a month after the tubers were first set up to sprout. There were no pictures in the intervening 2 weeks because we went away. That is why I transferred it to a pint glass – in order to be able to be able to leave it with plenty of water.

As you can see, within 4 weeks there were already some shoots and leaves that could be eaten. If there are any shoot without roots (slips) you can put the stems into water, and they will root. We ate them as a taste test instead.

Growing conditions

They were planted in some fertile compost in pots. As I had plenty of slips, I planted them in several different pots and in the edge of a big pot with a tree (a serviceberry) already in it. Fertile soil can lead to lots of leafy growth and less tuber production, but this is what I was aiming for. They need to be kept somewhere sunny, but also need regular watering in hot weather.  My pots were also going to be a bit small for particularly good tuber production.

Unfortunately, I started these far too late in the year (July), which meant that they didn’t have a very long growing season. I didn’t mind as I wasn’t aiming for sweet potatoes, only for the leaves and shoots to eat. The cold weather killed all but one pot that over wintered in the porch. It has just begun to grow its shoots again now in late March. This means I should have something to eat from it in the next few weeks.

So, like potatoes, sweet potatoes are perennial. However, if you leave potato tubers in the ground (and you always inevitably will, as it’s easy to miss the tiny ones that break away during harvest) you will get the plants reappearing each year. Unless your winter is very mild, any sweet potato tubers left in the ground won’t survive the winter. You either need to overwinter shoots in a pot inside or grow new sweet potato slips the next year.

Problems

There didn’t seem to be many problems with slugs or snails, but there was a bit of an issue with two tone spider mite. This unfortunately meant removing the affected leaves. I was sad to lose a couple of meals. Spider mite is fine if you catch it early. If you notice too late, you’ll basically have to remove all the leaves that you can see are even slightly affected. A water spray with a few drops of rosemary oil may have helped. They tend to run rampant in hot, dry weather. Just so you know, spider mite are not species specific. They affected both the sweet potatoes and physalis nearby. Make sure you know where you’ve planted the sweet potatoes as the not edible bindweed can look similar. Sweet potatoes are unfortunately not as invasive or persistent. The flowers apparently look similar too, but my plants never got that far.  

Use in the lock down

It’s helpful to be able to grow nutritious green shoots from a tuber you can buy in the supermarket, if your nearest garden centre is no longer open for plants and seeds. It doesn’t require any specialist equipment and you could have some greens to eat after a month. It’s entertaining for kids stuck at home to watch them sprout and it’s a useful educational tool for them to see both shoots and roots. It could be expanded to a lesson on cloning if you’re that way inclined (are you feeling rather sorry for my 4 year old?). If you leave some of the leaves and give it a long enough growing season you could then be eating the tubers in autumn.

I’m rather excited to see how the overwintered plants will grow. Hopefully, if I put them in a much bigger pot, or in the ground in a nice sunny spot they will grow potatoes this year. I won’t be too concerned if the tubers fail though, as I’m more interested in leaves for quick food in these difficult times, I don’t know whether this variety grows tubers well in this country (grows leaves well) and my little one refuses to eat sweet potatoes anyway.

Before lockdown I started a new sweet potato in a jar for slips, but so far there hasn’t been anything. I’ll have to wait till the next time we emerge from the house to buy food to secure another one. I wonder if I can find another fun purple one?

Purple Tree Collard

Short version: If you like kale crisps get a purple tree collard. They seem expensive to acquire, but once you have one you get lots of food for their footprint, they’re beautiful, perennial and really easy to grow.

I have written a generic post on kales and collards before, but I think this is worth a special mention now. This is partly because it has grown into a pretty impressive, well… tree… since the last photo and also because:

  • Purple tree collards are perennial
  • They grow throughout the year, including winter and the hungry gap
  • They taste great (and in fact get sweeter after a frost)
  • They’re rather attractive with their purple colours
  • The leaves get huge so that you only need a couple of leaves for a meal
  • They do fine in part shade
  • They do well in the alkaline clay soil that I have
  • They grow really tall, so they use up the vertical space.

When I say tall. I really do mean tall. I guestimated this to be around 8 feet tall. I put a standard folding garden chair in front of it today (20/03/20) for scale.

My only gripe is that whilst being tasty, the large leaves are quite tough, so a good old stew is required. Alternatively (and this is my favourite way to eat them) they make fantastic kale crisps. Because they’re tougher they hold together much better than the other kales.

Getting a purple tree collard

They are fiendishly hard to get hold of. Because they are perennial, they don’t tend to produce seed. Even if they did produce seeds, they may have crossed with another local brassicas so you wouldn’t be certain of how the offspring would turn out. Read more about cross pollination here . They are not sold by the usual commercial vegetable providers. This means that the only way to get one would be off eBay or a specialist website like https://backyardlarder.co.uk/ (like I did) or from someone who has one. The cutting may have seemed rather small for the £7.95 price tag with delivery added on top of it. However, because of the rarity of the plant and the wonderful provider that it has become, I think it was well priced. Once you have one, creating cuttings is rather easy so in a couple of years my lawn may have been replaced by a purple tree collard forest.

How to grow

They like fertile alkaline soil so the clay soil in London is perfect. It is said that you should avoid growing annual brassicas (cabbage, kale, sprout, cauliflower type things) in the same spot year after year as they can develop club root. I’m not sure whether purple tree collard is susceptible to club root, but because the purple tree collard is perennial it can happily stay in the same spot for years. I would maybe suggest that you don’t start your purple tree collard in a spot that has had cabbages growing in it year after year. Also, as it’s going to be there a while it is worth adding lots of nutrient rich organic matter, like compost. I did some hole composting over winter before I planted the purple tree collard into this bed.

When I made this new bed, I mixed in about 2 months’ worth of kitchen waste (peelings, cores – any uncooked vegetable and fruit matter) and 2 shredded Amazon delivery boxes. I then covered it and left the worms and decomposing bacteria to do their thing for a couple of months. By the time I planted the purple tree collard in, everything had broken down nicely. There was some nice organic matter mixed in with the squidgy clay. You can see the soil in the pictures below looks darker and crumblier. The cutting was planted into the garden in February.

I’ve been taking cuttings since it was around 8 months old. A healthy side shoot with around 6 leaves is a good candidate. Cut the stem with a clean knife. Remove all the leaves except maybe the top one or two small ones. Stick into a pot of compost. You can dip the cut tip in rooting hormone if you like but it hasn’t seemed necessary. Place away from the sun and don’t let it dry out. It will take a couple of months for a good root system to grow.

Eating it

The young smaller leaves can be blanched and stir fried with a little garlic and salt (or we use a pinch of chicken stock). Or it can be used in anything you would use kale in. It is sweet and slightly nutty and tastes… well … like kale.

The older leaves, and this includes the huge leaves, make great kale chips. Remove the stem and the central vein of the leaf (otherwise you get slightly soggy crisps)and chop into pieces. Toss in a mixture of a teaspoon of sunflower oil, a dash of sesame oil, a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt (or again… chicken stock) before laying on a grill tray in a single layer. Roast at 1800C for about 7 mins or until crispy and slightly brown at the edges.

I was quite surprised when my purple tree collard flowered in February. I was worried that the plant would die if it managed to set seed. I picked the 2 flowering stalks that grew and ate them. They were like purple sprouting broccoli in taste and texture. Since then it hasn’t sent up any more flower shoots.

I look forward to seeing what happens next year. Apparently it can live for up to 10 years. As insurance I’ll keep taking cuttings to propagate. If keep and grow even one cutting a year and older ones really do last 10 years, then I really will have that purple tree collard forest by then.

Grow things from the pound shop

Short version: When the cost is a pound, it is cheap and easy to try out new edibles or flowers. The seeds are about the same as seeds bought elsewhere. The plants are small and require patience but there is a huge variety available:

  • Raspberry, blueberry, gooseberry, blackcurrant, blackberry bare root plants
  • Vegetable, herb and flower multipack seeds (usually with 3-6 varieties per pack)
  • Asparagus crowns
  • Onion, garlic and shallot sets
  • Flower bulbs
  • Bare root cuttings of flowers like climbing roses, oleanders and buddleia

I occasionally find myself unable to walk past pound shops without popping in to see what they have. This time of year, it is simply irresistible. They often have fun plants and seeds. Due to the price, I expect the plants to die and the seeds to fail, but I have often been pleasantly surprised. If you have plenty of patience and very little budget, then it’s a great way to populate a garden. The small price tag feels like a small risk. Usually whenever I buy a plant for my edible garden, I spend forever checking the variety for taste, disease resistance and growing conditions. I carefully plan what is going to happen. This goes out of the window in the pound shop. I do at least google the variety on my phone to check that they’re a variety worth growing. As long as you steel yourself for some disappointment and are willing to invest some time in exchange to keep the budget small you’ll be happy. These are the gems that I’ve found in the pound shop:

Asparagus

I found asparagus crowns (year old roots) in a pound shop in Balham (which is no longer there) in 2010. I think the variety is/was Gijnlim. Before then I had never grown asparagus. I followed the instructions to plant and leave for a year and in the second year we were rewarded with a couple of stalks of the tastiest asparagus I’d ever eaten. Shop bought asparagus cannot compare to home grown, as the flavour deteriorates quickly after harvesting. I suspect that had I not come across these in the pound shop I still wouldn’t have experienced growing asparagus. You can’t harvest for a couple of years and even then, you won’t get huge harvests for a couple of years more. So, I think I would have been too impatient to consider asparagus if it wasn’t for this impulse buy. I grew them in a very large pot and then it then moved home with us… twice. Now I’ve sworn never to move again those asparagus plants are happily in raised beds. They’ve been joined by a few more carefully chosen plants. The only problem with the crowns from the pound shop is that they turned out to be female plants. I’ve read that female plants are less productive because they waste energy that should go towards growing yummy shoots into reproduction. I guess I could always pick the asparagus berries and try starting new plants.

Peas and Beans

At the same time (in 2010), I also bought a packet of seeds containing 2 varieties of peas and one variety of runner beans. Basically, it cost around 33p per variety. The runner beans turned out to be amazing. I had never come across runner beans in my childhood. No one I knew grew them and I had never eaten them in any situation. I was amazed by the huge purple seeds with black spots. I was surprised how well it did in part shade. This is where my love of vertical growing began. To be able to get such large volume of food over a long period of time in such a small footprint makes this one a winner.

The peas were OK, but we mostly ate them as pea shoots in stir fries. Again, loved the height of these. Now I always plant something climbing behind shorter veggies.

Vegetable seed multipacks

For anyone who is new to edible gardening, multipack seeds like these from the pound shop are a nice budget way to try a few things. I used seeds from a pound shop multipack to try beetroot, oregano, basil, aubergines, lettuce and radishes (which I now grow for the yummy greens).  There have been other things like herb multipacks. One pack I bought and grew in (I think, as it was a long time ago) 2010 was some sort of Italian selection that included aubergines, tomatoes, oregano and basil. The oregano packet I finished off in 2017 when I was filling our current garden. It has happily self-seeded since. Almost all the seeds have grown successfully.

Blackcurrant plant

This was bought in 2011 as a tiny little thing, about 6 inches of wooden stalk that had some new shoots on it. It took a couple of years to take off, but only made it through one house move. Probably because I tried really hard to neglect it to death. It still took about 2 years to kill it. I realised that I didn’t like blackcurrants. I thought they tasted chicken-y – in a really yucky way. The leaves smelt nice though. I have since learnt that you can’t eat blackcurrants straight off the bush. A year too late I discovered soaking blackcurrants in vodka. A jam jar (yay for repurposing) with a cup of blackcurrants, 3 tablespoons of sugar and topped up with vodka and left for 3 months gives an amazingly, syrupy liqueur with tasty blackcurrants that make great dessert toppers (not for the 4 year old though). I bought a replacement plant this week and I hope to be making merry on them again soon.

Raspberry plant

In 2011, with the blackcurrant I bought a raspberry. It didn’t survive. On a whim in 2018 I tried again with a pound shop malling jewel. I looked it up and it’s a sweet variety. Avoid anything that says tart or acidic in the description, unless you’re fond of sour. Often raspberry descriptions that don’t specifically say sweet -will not be sweet. Full of flavour does not equate sweet. It’s a marketing ploy. It was of course a tiddly little stick, like the blackcurrant and didn’t amount to much in the first year. In 2019 though there were maybe 10 raspberries on it. Hopefully 2020 will be its year to flourish.

Blueberry and Gooseberry

This year 2020 I have bought 2 blueberries “Patriot” and gooseberry “Hinnonmäki grön”. This may be foolhardy. I already have 3 very productive, carefully chosen blueberry plants and a gooseberry that I bought last year that hasn’t produced any fruit yet. It’s just so hard to resist a potential fruit bush that costs a pound. I did at least check before I bought them that they were likely to be tasty. I figure they’re so tiny and can be put into a pot and dumped somewhere for the next 3 years before they get really productive (or die) then I can try and find a space to squeeze them into. Alternatively, I can continue reclaiming bits of the lawn over the years until the husband concedes defeat.

Flower seeds

I don’t really grow flowers, unless I can eat them but 6 different varieties for a pound is hard to resist. I bought some last year, 2019, though the flowers weren’t all the same as the one in the photo. This is a pack from this year. I didn’t sow all the flowers in the end as things like foxglove are toxic. My little one is good at recognising the edibles, but I don’t think it is worth the risk. I ended up scattering the non-toxic ones in a pot last year and then forgot to water them. I wasn’t too sad as it was only a pound.  

Flower bulbs

There are a large variety of flower bulbs. However, only the dahlia interested me. I have read that the flowers and tubers are edible. I figured that this was a cheap way to see how difficult it was to grow them and then see if I could figure out if the ones available were tasty. Apparently, they were considered as staples by the Aztecs, but due to the breeding of dahlias for display purposes over the year there is now a wide variety of looks and taste. I will need to do further research and maybe some tentative testing but supposedly all dahlias are edible, but not all taste good.

There are other things available like onion, garlic and shallot sets and bare root flower plants, which I haven’t tried. I guess if I followed my own advice, it wouldn’t be much of a risk to give these a go, but I’d rather have the space in the garden to grow my more perennial or self-seeding edibles. If I had an endless garden, I would probably fill it with pound shop plants…. Well, a girl can dream.

Wild Rocket

Short version:

Not for the faint hearted, this is a spicy rocket that really packs a punch. It’s perennial AND self-seeds readily. It grows in shadier conditions with poorer soil and lasts most of the year.

Arugula, rocket, rucola – whatever you want to call the regular, shop bought version is a complete wuss compared to the wild rocket, also called perennial wall rocket. Latin name Diplotaxis Tenuifolia.

Taste

Wild rocket is much punchier in taste, so be prepared. In the summer months it becomes so spicy that I can’t actually bear to eat it raw. If you’re at all unsure whether you like rocket you should probably avoid this. If you LOVE rocket, then this will definitely satisfy you. You may even find that you have to ‘dilute’ the spiciness with some more benign leaves, or some oil like cream or cheese. After gifting some to my neighbour, she sent it back over the fence in the form of an amazing pesto. That is literal by the way. We don’t often call each other or knock on the doors but conversations are held through the greenery and things are often passed in the gaps.

Growing

Seeds are easily sown straight into the ground a couple of weeks before the last frost. It germinates fairly quickly – around 2-3 weeks. It begins fairly spindly but by the second year if you cut it down to the ground it can become rather bushy. It does well in partial shade. In fact, some shade helps as hotter weather can cause the leaves to become very spicy. It does fine in poorer soils too.

Harvesting

Harvest the leaves as soon as you think the plant has enough to spare. You can also cut whole shoots for a more substantial harvest. This discourages flowering. This can be treated as a cut and come again plant for most of the year. Flowers can be eaten and smell rather sweet. Bees seem to be rather fond of them.

When the summer comes I stop trying to eat the spicy leaves. This means that flowers tend to grow. I like the smell of the flowers and my little one likes to pick them – though she won’t put them anywhere near her taste buds. This means that will an abundance of flowers the plant often goes to seed. I find the rocket springs up in the cracks of my flagstones. They become my much loved bonus plants. In the areas of the patio with low foot traffic I let them be. That way I don’t have to actually give up any garden space to the plant and still get to eat them.

The question now is why grow this over normal rocket? The perennial habit of wild rocket wins it for me. When the conditions are ideal this plant has continued to provide food well into winter and only had a little break for about 2 months before it was raring to go again. In my experience it can keep going till November and is back by February. It grows slowly at the beginning of the year, but it can be a useful green for the hungry gap. With absolutely no effort from me since planting 3 years ago it keeps coming back like a weed and just challenges me to eat it into submission. Just FYI, I lost and dug plants ups for other people’s gardens. 

Go to or organise a seed swap

Short version:

Seed swaps are great for sharing seeds that you have spare, finding new things to grow with low risk and getting small quantities of a large variety of seeds.

A couple of weeks ago a friend suggested I go to Incredible Edible Lambeth’s seed swap. It was in the Garden Museum by Lambeth Bridge. Having never been to a seed swap I had no idea what to expect. I picked my most exciting seeds (yes, I know – it’s not normal for people to consider any seeds exciting) – Caucasian Spinach, Malabar Spinach, Physalis, tromboncino and Chinese Chives. The idea was to take seeds saved from plants you’ve grown, knowing that they do well in our climes, to swap. Shop bought seeds were also acceptable.

Collected seeds

Be aware that your seeds may not always give the same traits as your original plants. This is because the variety that pollinates your seeding plant may be quite different. There are more details in ‘Pollination fertilisation and variation.

Of my seeds, the Caucasian spinach and Malabar spinach would not likely have had any other varieties grown nearby so they would probably be true to type. The Physalis (caped gooseberry) may have crossed, as I had seen a Chinese lantern (which has bitter small fruit) in a garden a couple of streets away. The tromboncino can be pollinated by butternut squash – so if there was any in nearby gardens then I guess there could have been cross pollination. Squashes especially produce flowers that favour cross pollination as discussed in ‘Squash surprise’. I have absolutely no idea about the pollination of Chinese chives.

The seed swap

I arrived quite late into the event, which was in a fairly small room with about thirty people. It sounded like many people had already been and gone before I arrived. There were a few tables set up and on each table were many packets, envelopes and jam jars of seeds. Some were already packaged into small envelopes and well labelled with plant, variety, growing times and date of collection but in some cases (like…er…me) there was just an old envelope with the name of the plant scrawled on it. I felt quite guilty, so spent about 10 minutes writing some more details on each envelope. There were also plenty of small brown envelopes that you could put a few seeds in and write the details on. The idea is that you can give away seeds that you collect from your own garden or surplus seeds as packets often contain far more than most people use. You only take a few seeds of each thing but there is no limit to how many things you take. It is a nice way to save money and be introduced to things you otherwise may not come across. It seems slightly unfair to the people who make a living selling seeds if you share packets of bought seeds, but at the same time it’s easy to avoid trying a new vegetable that may be hard to grow or may have an unknown taste. If you get ‘free’ seeds, then you have no risk. You may find yourself loving a new vegetable and then later buy more. So in a way, though you may be taking income away at the start, the more that people become interested in growing their own, the more money they will make later on.

I was surprised and relieved to find it wasn’t a direct swapping of seeds. I didn’t feel like I was being forced to network or feel judged on the seeds I had brought. Though events such as these can about community and meeting like minded people who enjoy growing, introverts have no need to fear. There was no need to interact with anyone should you be feeling that way inclined on the day. With no pressure, I felt conversation came about naturally and I chatted to a few people about the Caucasian Spinach.

My new seeds

I came away with a few interesting seeds.  

  • Red orache, which is a red-purply spinach like leaf.
  • Calendula, as I’ve been meaning to try and grow more edible flowers.
  • Bronze fennel, a fun coloured fennel.
  • Chervil, which apparently tastes like a cross between tarragon and parsley.
  • Chicory, which I’ve decided not to grow this after some research as it can be bitter (even when you put in lots of effort to blanche it) and I’ve grown enough bitter vegetables in the past.
  • Achocha, which was a pleasing find. These are small cucumber like fruit that I saw on a blog by Skyeent. I was very excited.

I only a took a tiny percentage of what was available on the day as I was mostly on the look out for new things. I did also take a few chard, red kuri and a pre-packaged envelope of mixed French beans too for my little one’s school, as I only have any spare of my own seeds left at home. There were a plethora of legumes, salad leaves, tomatoes, sweetcorn, brassicas, aubergines, squashes, root veggies, herbs and flower seeds available though.

I would definitely recommend doing one of these should the opportunity arise and I might suggest something like this to the PTA at my little one’s school.

Apple trees

Short version:

Grow apples as they are great trees for adding structure to a garden and for under planting. They taste far better than shop bought, you can grow a variety not available in the shops, trees are cheap and popular in urban areas (providing you with access to pollination partners), it’s environmentally friendly and they can be trained into fun shapes.

An apple tree is a great addition to your garden because:

Apples are perennial trees

Once a tree starts producing fruit you can get a harvest for years. Trees are great for adding height and structure to the garden. Wildlife such as digging rodents, rabbits, cats or foxes don’t worry an established tree. You can also plant around the base with companion plants such as nasturtiums, mint, dill, fennel and basil – all of which are edible and can help deter pests or attract pollinators. With my small garden I find it hard to dedicate a patch to something like mint, that grows well but isn’t often used. I feel like the space above the mint is no longer wasted, and the mint is happy in some shade.  

They taste great (with a proviso)

The apples you pick off your tree will be fresh, naturally ripened and juicy. The proviso is that for your apple to also be sweet and tasty, you do need to have started with a sweet and tasty variety. If you grow a crab apple you can’t expect huge sweet fruit. Anything that is called a cooking apple will not taste great for eating straight off a tree.

I can with total honesty say that I have never tasted an apple that was as good as the Jonagold we picked from our tree early autumn last year. So many fabulous varieties are unavailable in the shops, but even a Golden Delicious apple picked from your own tree tastes nothing like a Golden Delicious from the shops. When you are picking your own, off your own tree, in small quantities, you have the luxury of picking individual apples as they ripen. If an apple is ripe you also have the luxury of leaving it on the tree a few days until you’re ready to eat it. You don’t have to worry about having to pick thousands of apples off hundreds of trees as they ripen together. Consider labour intensive fruit picking. Is the commercial picker really going to inspect each apple for perfect ripeness or are they just going to harvest absolutely everything that looks remotely ripe? If they are harvested by machine everything is collected off the tree at once. Leaving apples too long to ripen fully comes with the danger of apples going bad. The apples have to be picked before they are ripe in order to give them time to get to shops and to have a decent shelf life. Most are then put into long term refrigeration, allowing apples to be available all year round (source). I’m appreciative of this method as it means I can buy an apple any time of year, but it’s no wonder that a shop bought apple just can’t compete with a home grown one.

They can be grafted

You are unlikely to get a tasty variety from seed. Apple flowers can be pollinated by the open flowers of any other apple tree in the local vicinity. This means that the seeds of an apple that you like will probably not produce a tree that produces apples that taste like the original. In addition, it takes several years before you get any fruit from a tree grown from seed, so a graft gets your tree fruiting sooner.

In order to get a specific variety, a cutting is taken from the chosen variety and grafted onto a rootstock (a young apple tree with strong roots). Basically, all Golden Delicious are grown from trees that are clones of the original Golden Delicious. You can read more about why seeds don’t always produce plants that are the same variety as the parents in ‘Pollination, fertilisation and variation’
Another great thing about the grafting means that you can have more than one variety grafted onto the same rootstock. You get to have more variety without needing to use the space of two (or more) trees.

Dwarfing root stock is great for small spaces

With the small size of city gardens, it can be quite hard to fit much in. Most fruit trees suitable for the garden have a dwarfing rootstock. This rootstock determines the eventual height of the tree, which will be somewhere between 1m to 4m depending on how dwarfing the rootstock is. This means you can choose something that won’t become a nuisance in the space. The rootstock may also provide better disease resistance, hardiness or sturdiness.

There are plenty of pollination partners

Apple trees are very popular in domestic gardens. There is often a plethora of crab apple trees growing in urban areas too. This means that if you only have one tree you are still likely to have a suitable pollination partner in the vicinity. There are a few apple varieties that are self-fertile (can pollinate itself) but most need another apple tree of a different variety in order to set fruit. The ones that are self-fertile tend to have better harvests when cross pollination can occur. Apple trees that are grafted with more than one variety will usually have varieties that will pollinate each other.

Apple trees are suitable for training in forms

If you are short on space or want a living screen, you can prune the apple tree to make a productive and attractive feature.

Cheap and easy

Bare root trees (usually available late autumn until very early spring) are great as they are cheap and easy to transport. If like me, you are trying to do up a garden on a budget it makes it easier on the mind to buy fruit trees bare root. I have even found a bare root with 2 varieties grafted onto it here. I can’t however give you any experience of this website as I haven’t bought any fruit trees from here.

It may take a couple of years to get productive, but apples are generally reliable as trees that do well in English weather and pay for themselves in produce over time.  

Growing your own is environmentally friendly

Having a tree in your garden will capture carbon whilst providing you with more oxygen as the tree photosynthesises. In addition, your apples have zero food miles and packaging. As well as food miles, the time spent by store bought apples in storage will have a carbon footprint attached. They are kept in a low temperature, low oxygen environment to keep the apples fresh. Basically, an apple, bought just before the harvesting season begins will be an apple that has been stored for almost a year. 

My apple tree

Despite extolling the virtues of growing a bare root tree, my apple tree was a potted one I bought in the summer of 2017. This is because of the timing of the creation of the garden which you can see here and also because I really wanted this crazy 5 variety tree from here.

It was expensive but is unusual to have that many varieties on one tree and this website was the only place I could find it. Even in the winter this particular tree is not available as a bare root. It has a very dwarfing rootstock and so is only expected to grow to 6-8ft. I get to have a small-ish tree with a variety of flavours that pollinate each other.

Summer 2018 there were a couple of apples of 2 varieties growing, but by the end of summer they all dropped off without growing much. Autumn 2019 there were 4 varieties that we harvested. Unfortunately, we are still not entirely sure which variety is which, which is part of the fun! We do know that we absolutely love the Jonagold – that is, if we identified it correctly. These are the varieties that we have on our tree:

  • Cox – striped red and yellow apple with crisp sweet flesh
  • Elstar – a marbled golden yellow with some deep red and crunchy white flesh. Sweet with some balanced acidity.
  • Golden delicious – golden green small apples that are sweet when ripe.
  • Jonagold – huge lovely yellow apples with red flushes. They are sweet with some balanced acidity.
  • Red Boskoop – lumpy dull red with russeting sharp cooking apple.

With different varieties on the one tree I will need to be careful to ensure via pruning that one variety doesn’t become too dominant. Another drawback of the many varieties grafted onto one tree is that if my tree’s trunk is damaged then I can kiss goodbye to all my varieties.