Ivy

Short version:

Don’t do it to yourself unless you have to cover something really quickly and have the time to chop it back 3 or 4 times a year… and take the clippings to garden waste because they can’t be composted. Check out some of the other options.

Don’t do it!

Being some sort of edible gardening evangelist, I’ve been in a few people’s gardens to convince them to grow lots of food. I’ve now also cleared out two gardens, to provide more space for growing the things they actually want. In both the main squatter was ivy, which had, in places, grown over itself and pushed out so that there was a crown of green foliage with lots of twiggy and brown growth underneath. Both gardens had walls of ivy 2m thick.

The ivy was sticking out into the patio by about 1m. The gap between the wall and the fence is about a 1m. Doesn’t look great bare, but now something can be grown in that space.

In one garden I had proof the ivy was planted intentionally, not by the current occupier but by a previous one. At the base of an absolutely massive ivy triffid I found a garden centre label. This bush had completely taken over the wooden fence and attached itself onto some trellising above and dug its little roots into the wood of everything damaging it. The weight of the ivy plus the weakening caused by the roots had caused this fence to bend and then the trellis attached to topple. The neighbour there also said that it had invaded her garden and she had been battling it for years.

Many people plant ivy to cover something unsightly, quickly cover a fence, to add green to their garden quickly or to create privacy. Yes, it does do all these things very quickly but it’s worth considering that ivy grows quickly and CONTINUES to grow quickly. Once it has covered your desired area there is very little to stop it continuing to cover every available surface. Ivy is very tenacious. It propagates very easily. Anywhere that Ivy touches soil it can establish deep roots and start a new plant. These deep roots also make it very hard to pull it out. If you are unlucky enough to have lots of neglected ivy running along bare soil you may find that it is anchored itself in many places. Ivy also places its roots very close to structures such as walls, fences, trees and bushes which makes their roots very hard to remove. The fusing of the roots to wood or other plants means that digging out their roots sometimes causes damage to things that you’re trying to save. Ivy can damage brickwork and can weaken structures. It can also kill weaker trees as the aerial roots damage bark allowing insects and disease to enter and where the ivy completely covers the tree, the tree is in too much shade to photosynthesise well. You do sometimes see dead trees smothered with ivy. It’s ability to cover the ground also kills many other species of plants as they can’t compete, reducing diversity.

Why you maybe might

It’s not all terrible though. As previously stated, it does cover something quick with plenty of green with little input from gardeners. Ivy also tolerates shade well. It also comes in lovely, variegated forms. Birds can nest in its dense network of his stems and the berries also provide wildlife with food. Ivy also sucks up plenty of carbon dioxide and gives out oxygen during photosynthesis. I’ve also read that because ivy has a very large surface area (lots of foliage) it does mean it traps some of the pollution particulates well, which then get washed down to the soil when it rains. The dense foliage can also form a physical barrier between the pollution of roads and homes. In a city like London, having bare surfaces covered in ivy to remove some of the pollutants and greenhouse gas and provide more oxygen is a good thing.

Alternatives

As with many things there are both positive and negatives. I would only ask that you consider the future when planting ivy. If you do not have the time to maintain and cutback ivy regularly it can very quickly get out of hand. You would be better off planting something slower growing that doesn’t propagate quite as easily.

Just in case any definitions are needed:

  • perennial – grows back every year             annual – needs to be re-sown every year
  • evergreen – keeps leaves all winter           deciduous – leaves drop off

Inedible perennial climber – Star jasmine is an evergreen that covers structures very well and also has beautiful scented flowers. It doesn’t grow anywhere near as quickly and it won’t create new plants everywhere it touches the ground. Star jasmine is not edible but grows well in the shade. There are other beautiful and/or scented jasmines, clematis and honeysuckles that are semi evergreen. These are also not edible and need more sun than the star jasmine. None of these burrow into brickwork, fences and trees so you won’t have to deal with the damage after. This does mean that you do have to provide something for them climb but they won’t make a nuisance of themselves and, in my opinion, they are all much more beautiful.

Fast growing evergreen perennial climber with edible bits – If you want something quick passion flowers can be evergreen and the Passiflora caerulea, if grown in a sunny spot, can also produce bright orange fruit with edible seeds. Beware, though, as all other parts are toxic. It will cover something quickly and so need cutting back regularly. They use curling tendrils to cling so it’s easy to remove large sections of it. They don’t burrow into structures and they don’t propagate so easily too. Passiflora provide beautiful flowers and have plenty of leaf mass to suck up carbon dioxide. These need good sun though.

Perennial deciduous edible vines – Kiwi or grape vines are much slower growing than ivy and they do go completely bare over winter, but you could grow a green screen over the warmer months (when you’re more likely to be outside anyway) that has lovely edible fruit. They do need lots of sun and kiwis grow better in acid soil. If you want a vegetable – Caucasian spinach is a vine with edible, spinach like leaves and shoots. It isn’t technically deciduous as the whole thing dies back every year, but it grows very quickly and covers a wall in a season if provided with something to scramble up. It also grows well in shade.

Edible perennial bushes Physalis (cape gooseberry) may keep some green over winter but they provide delicious orange fruit enclosed in papery shells. Physalis can get very large and bushy very quickly and can self-seed. It is much easier to remove than ivy though. Chilean guava is evergreen but slow growing so will take a while to establish.

Edible annual – There are plenty of climbing beans and squashes that would cover any support in just a few months and have the bonus of providing you with something yummy in the process. Things like runner beans do OK in some shade. Squashes, sugar snap peas and fine beans need lots of sun. Trailing nasturtiums also climb trellises well and provide edible foliage and flowers.

Hopefully these are some alternatives to planting ivy. Remember that any food you plant in your garden reduces packaging and waste. It can also reduce your carbon footprint.

Critters

Short version: Some of the issues caused by creatures in the garden and some of the ways I’ve explored to combat them, with varied success.

Before I get into this I would like to make it clear that I’m actually rather fond of animals…. We would probably have a pet if there weren’t allergies in the family. Doctors have advised against it. I even like cats (you might not think so whilst reading this), despite being them being little predators that terrorise birds and frogs/toads, which are beneficial to an edible garden. Annoyingly, they don’t seem to be particularly useful for deterring rats to the area. Or actually I’d love a couple of chickens – but little one is allergic to eggs so…er…. Anyway, there are things that certain creatures do that rile me up. This list was compiled from December alone:

Poo – I had to remove six poos from a single vegetable bed in one of the weeks, a total of 15 poos in December. I haven’t put in a photo because that’s just gross. Sadly, cat poo does not do the vegetable bed any good. Their faeces do not add much in the way of nutrients to the soil. They may also contain parasites that can infect humans or contain bacteria that is harmful. Sometimes the waste is slightly buried and is only found because of the smell. Sometimes it is just plonked on the surface. I’ve heard that cats that consider themselves to be the alpha of the area will not bury its poo. If they had the manners to bury their waste deep in the soil, without destroying the plants I don’t think I’d mind so much.

The smell like something had died – The neighbour who lives 2 doors down from me has a garden backing onto hers with a rat’s nest in it. You can then imagine my horror when in December I found a dead rat in my garden, under my child’s swing. I smelt it first. It was also the week of many poos so I thought it was a particular disgusting smelly cat gift. The smell was vile and overwhelming and gave new insight into the phrase ’smells like something has died’. Rats do pose a health risk with their leaky urine, though I haven’t seen any other evidence of their presence.

Digging – Now I don’t know whether the next culprit is a rat, a mouse or a squirrel. I have seen 2 out of 3 of these alive in the garden. One of these creatures has been digging up my pots. I sowed a whole load of seeds October / November. The pots were all full of seedlings. They are now mostly dead, and the soil is scattered everywhere.

Destruction – I installed a water dripper system. It saves water as it drips it directly onto the soil rather than the leaves. Not soaking the leaves also reduces powdery mildew and fungus problems and it also saves lots of time in the summer and saves the lives of plants when we are busy or when we go away. A few of these pipes have been torn to shreds. Some creature has been gnawing at them, presumably to get to the water. I doubt I’ll be using it again before May, but it’s annoying that they’re going to need replacing.

Maybe these are problems you can relate to. The cat poo is the thing that bothers me the most, probably because, at its worst it requires daily removal. It is disgusting and I don’t even know where to put it after. There doesn’t seem to be any advantage to the garden. They don’t deter the other unwanted creatures, even though I have seen 6 different cats in the garden. They just dig up plants and poo. Occasionally they spray.

This is a list of how well things have worked for us:   

Olfactory deterrents

Most mammals have sensitive noses so strong smells can be a deterrent. I’ve tried Rosemary oil, peppermint oil, orange oil and chilli powder. They did seem to keep cat poos down, but as soon as there was a rain or over too short a period (about a week) they were no longer effective. They kept the other diggers away too, but only for the same time period. I have read that planting lots of mint can help. It hasn’t in our garden, nor has lavender or rosemary bushes. Maybe we need more.

Chemical deterrents

This is also smell based but seems more dangerous than the plant based chilli or oils. We’ve tried something called catapult – which claims to deter cats with aluminium sulphate. You spray it liberally on surfaces and reapply after rain or a couple of weeks. I can’t say I noticed a huge improvement. There were still some visits. Because it performed less well than the oils and chilli we gave up on it pretty quickly because we do try and avoid chemicals. The label does also say it deters birds too which is not something we want to do.

We also tried something called ‘Silent Roar’ about 5 years ago. These are pellets that look like blobs of ceramic poo that have been soaked in lion dung. They instruct you to wear gloves when distributing them for both hygiene and so that the cats don’t smell your scent on them. They also advise not to let the cats see you dispensing as the cats then know it’s just you pretending to be a lion, which we found hilarious. These were effective for about 2 months but they’re not cheap and you don’t get much in a bag. It was only feasible in our previous tiny garden.

Sonic deterrents

There are motion detecting, high frequency sound emitters that are beyond human hearing. The cats can hear them, unfortunately they don’t seem to mind them. They showed their lack of dissuasion by pooing next to one of them. Holes are also dug in pots nearby, so it doesn’t bother the digging creatures either.

Physical deterrents

Not wanting to use chemicals or deter birds we then began looking at physical barriers.

Bamboo skewers – We hoped that these would form a forest of discouraging spikes. When placed densely enough the cats avoid the soil somewhat, but it did little to deter the small digging and chewing creatures.

Chicken wire – I had hoped that this would discourage digging but allow the seedlings to come through. It’s hard to believe, but as I was installing it over some pots, I smelt something rather whiffy. I turned to see a cat. That cat had just dropped a steaming pile of protest on top of the chicken wire of the pot that I had only just finished. This did stop any digging though. Gave up on it as it was very difficult to weed and plant new things. Also some plants got stuck under the mesh.

Prickle pads – this is plastic mesh that can be placed on the surface of the soil. All over the surface are little spikes. They’re not sharp or hard enough to cause damage to creatures (or me), but they are uncomfortable. This did stop the pooing and the digging – but there is the same problem of getting to the soil it and plants get stuck. This is not something you want to put on top of beetroots.

All of these things are not great for the environment either as they require energy and material to produce and transport. I have kept all the bits and will continue to use them until they fall apart, but I don’t think they’re worth buying more of in the future.

Layer of uncomfortable prunings – this works well for us…ish. Whenever there is bare soil to be left for a little while I’ll take the stems and twigs of whatever was last harvested or cleared from the garden and use that to cover the soil. This stops all the digging and pooing. It’s free and it’s environmentally friendly. The only problem is that it can’t remain in place when seedlings are growing as it blocks the light and squishes the seedlings.

Motion activated water sprayer

This is our winner for the cat poo problem. You hook up a hose pipe from the outdoor tap to the little contraption on a spike. It has a motion detector, which when activated sends a jet of water in an arc across the garden. On this particular model you can fiddle with the distance of jet (which is also dependent on how open your tap is too), the width of the arc and the sensitivity of the motion detector. The results are long lasting. This is actually our second one. After 3 years of mistreatment bits had snapped off, it had started leaking and it just wasn’t doing the job anymore. Whenever we have had it running the garden is feline excrement free. The best thing about it is that the cats’ behaviour changes. Even when the water hasn’t been switched on, I’ve seen a cat on the fence bolt when it has heard the click of activation. Our last one had been out of commission since June and the cat poos started appearing again about November. We installed the new one just before Christmas. The water was on for 2 weeks, on and off for a week and now has been completely off for a week. Since the new one was installed there has been one poo. I was a bit sad about this, but I had to admire the audacity of the cat. It had made its way over the shed and garden room roof, dropped down undetected into a pot that was behind the sprayer and left a poo there. That soil has now been covered with twigs. I’m not sure if the smaller creatures activate it but maybe they’re scared off by the spray when it happens.

video of the motion sprayer in action

It’s a bit of a bitter victory, as there are 3 cats on the road that we are rather fond of. They haven’t visited us in the past month, unsurprisingly. One of them used to visit still when the last sprayer was in place when we were in the garden. He had worked out that when there were humans about, the garden was safe. The other 2 are young and new to the road (so also new to the sprayer), so you never know. Maybe we can reach a happy medium. I like them. I just don’t like their poo.

Winter Edible Garden

Short version:

It is easier to eat seasonally in the summer and autumn, but hopefully this week’s blog can give you some ideas about what you could grow in a UK garden (and maybe other northern hemisphere areas) over winter… which seems like a good idea when you see the news full of Brexit, lockdowns and of course becoming more sustainable is on my mind anyway after last week’s climate change blog.  

Last week’s climate change blog inspired a panic of ‘MUST GROW MORE FOOD’!!! This week’s lockdown announcements also inspired a panic of ‘MUST GROW MORE FOOD’!!!  Whilst this is still true, after assessing the garden in its current state, I realised how many things there were still in the garden to eat, even in January. The quantities are not so great, but the variety isn’t bad. It was actually one of my goals this year – to try and create a garden that would feed us more through the winter. In the summer, every day, we can pop out into the garden and bring something back to eat. there is a time, during the summer (changes depending on what we plant and how the weather is behaving) when we can eat fresh fruit and veg solely from the garden. Whilst I don’t think this is achievable for the winter, it would be fabulous if we could, at least, supplement our food shop with food from the garden. Currently we get maybe 4 or 5 meals a week that have garden vegetables. Sadly, this won’t last into February, but below is what we have been able to eat this winter so far. All of the photos were taken this month, though most were taken this week.

Persistent perennials:

Purple tree collard – This is fabulous brassica and has grown huge (it was 10ft, now pruned to 8ft). We’ve mostly ignored it over the summer so now there is still plenty to harvest. The leaves are a bit tough, but that is remedied with some longer cooking times. It’s not as prone to powdery mildew as the Daubenton’s kale and as the weather turned some of the went leaves yellow. It does benefit from frequent harvesting to allow for more air circulation. Highly recommend this for large amounts of winter (and hungry gap) food. It also produces a lot for the amount of soil space that it takes up. It tastes great as kale crisps. Click for more info.

Daubentons kale – we do have a problem in the summer with powdery mildew, especially when it gets really hot and humid. We have lost much of the growth this year and have had to chop it back quite severely, but this does much better in the winter. The growth is slow, but this, like the purple tree collard, does produce a lot of food for the space it takes. Click for more info.

Watercress – It’s refreshing to have a leaf that doesn’t taste similar to brassicas. The only problem is that it really is slow growing. It also takes up quite a lot of soil space. Click for more info.

Physalis – this evergreen bushy plant still has plenty of fruit growing on it through winter. The fruit doesn’t mature so quickly when the weather is cold, but the berries are a welcome fruit when there is no other fruit available in our garden. Click for more info.

Three cornered leek – It is illegal to plant it in public spaces because of what a nuisance it can become. Therefore, I was very careful with planting it in a border surrounded by walls and flagstones where it wouldn’t escape. I also planted it sparsely. It has self-seeded and spread very well. I have also grown it in the very shadiest spot, under the physalis bush. There’s enough for a couple of meals but hopefully next year this space will be totally full, and I can harvest it into submission. I do wonder if it would make a good winter substitute for grass. The only reason I haven’t (yet) is that in the summer it dies back completely so we would have a lot of bare earth that cats would just poo on. Click for more info.

Chinese chives – these are dying back with the cold weather but there is a little bit to eat still. This won’t make a complete meal, but it can be added to stir fries, soups, stews or sauces. Click for more info.

Walking onions – these have been planted in quite a shady spot, so they’ve grown rather slowly. There is plenty for stir fries, soups, stews or sauces. Click for more info.

Perennials that need a bit of a hand:

These are root vegetables so need a hand because if you remove everything from the soil then there’ll be nothing next year. All the following 3 have the sugar inulin, so they can cause gas because they feed the gut flora – so a bad but good thing.

Yacon – I only harvested this, this week. They’re can be really easy to pull up, root system and all, if the soil is friable. Raw tubers have a texture of water chestnut and a taste of carrot mixed with apple. They get sweeter when left on a sunny windowsill for a week. They can be stored in the ground (as long as the ground doesn’t become completely frozen) over winter and provide a decent amount of food. Little one loves them raw, but we don’t have many uses for them beyond that. They need peeling as the skin is bitter. They grow back from rhizomes (so you can eat all the tubers), which can be stored in a pot of compost somewhere sheltered. Click for more info.

Jerusalem artichoke – This is a new one for us this year. I was surprised at just how much food they produced for the amount of ground space needed. They do grow very tall though (ours were about 10 ft) so plan carefully where to grow them. They too can be stored in the ground (if there isn’t a hard freeze) and become sweeter with a frost. They also store fine in a fridge for a couple of weeks. The skins can be left on and they are lovely roasted or sauteed. You need to leave a couple of tubers to grow the following year. Raw they have a texture and taste a bit like nutty waterchestnuts. Cooked they are like potato and taste quite like steamed artichoke hearts. Click for more info.

Chinese artichoke – these are harder to harvest as they grow very deep down into the soil and are fairly small. It’s fun for the little one to dig and spot them though. This does mean that you are likely to have left tubers behind, so they’ll grow back easily the following year. The tubers look like tiny Michelin men and are very fiddly to clean. They have thin skin that doesn’t need peeling. Raw they taste and feel like waterchestnuts with a hint of mild radish. Cooked they are more like taro in taste and texture. Fiddly, but fun. Click for more info.

Self-seeding annuals:

Lambs lettuce – little one loves these as a salad leaf. The only reason I don’t grow more of it is that it forms very short plants, so they do take up a lot of soil space. A definite disadvantage in our small garden. Click for more info.

Winter purslane – eaten like lettuce, this also grows very short but it self-seeds so readily and grows so well under and around things that no matter how much we eat there is always plenty the next season. It is a bit fiddly to harvest though. Click for more info.

Nasturtiums – these are a fabulous plant to have in the winter. We have a trailing/climbing variety that uses the pear and apple tree to climb up. This is something we discourage in the summer, but in the winter when the leaves have all fallen and the fruit trees are dormant, we let the nasturtiums grow rampant and it’s a great non-brassica to have. Some of the plants will be ones that have grown through the summer and some of them will have grown from seed from September. They don’t deal well with frost so we must try and eat anything edible before the really cold weather to avoid waste. Click for more info.

Annuals:

All of the following are frost hardy and do well in the UK winters. The growth is slow though. If you plan it well you can have these almost ready as the winter starts and then the garden can act as a bit of a larder. Sadly, I didn’t plant many of them soon enough or in large enough quantities. I mostly waited to clear everything else before sowing them:

Radishes – generally grow quickly in warm weather, they need about 2 months to mature in late autumn. They haven’t grown much in the past month though. We also grow these for the greens overwinter. Click for more info.

Beetroots – we grow golden beetroots as they’re sweeter. Little one will only eat the yellow ones. We only have about 3 left in the garden. We should have planned better and sown more.

Chard –  most of our plants are actually from a neighbour. They’re quite little so aren’t providing much now, but they should grow really well in early spring and be a welcome harvest in the hungry gap (April /May when there is little else available). Click for more info.

Cauliflowers – these were planted in too shady a spot and the curds are tiny.

Annual Kales – have Red Russian and Pentland Brig. These are still quite small but hopefully that means that they may still be going over the hungry gap.

current batch of pea shoots

Indoors

Pea shoots – these can also be grown year-round indoors. It takes 4-6 weeks to get something to eat. These can be grown cheaply from supermarket dried peas.  Click for more info.

Bean sprouts – these can be grown from dried mung beans year-round and only takes about a week. Click for more info.

Ideas for this year

Collards over kales – I’m sure the purple tree collard and the Daubentons will continue to thrive, but in order to keep producing lots of food over both winter and the hungry gap I think it’s work starting a couple more purple tree collards. 3 plants would provide enough for meals 3-5 times a week year-round. We might get a bit bored of it, but we’ll just have to find new interesting ways to cook it. It might also be a good replacement for a Daubentons. Whilst I love it for the tender tasty leaves, I’m fed up with dealing with the powdery mildew.

Grow food not lawns – To make the most of the space, I think it’s worth removing some of the patchy lawn (or just planting into the bare bits) to replace it with watercress, maybe try some landcress, Chinese chives and three-cornered leek. The Chinese chives and three-cornered leek thrive during opposite sides of the year so if I interplant them, the ‘grassy’ area shouldn’t get too bare. It’s worth sowing some winter purslane and lamb’s lettuce into this too. This means the area where the watercress currently is could support more chard, cauliflowers, or annual kale instead. These I’ll make sure I plant more of, and earlier than I did last year. Hopefully that means we’ll be covered in both winter and the hungry gap. We’ve tried growing edible flowers in the lawn but we’ve only managed to get a couple of each plants so far. We might also try some mint or lemon balm.

Think ahead – In August September  the garden is rather full and it’s hard to keep up with the harvesting so it’s hard to think of the leaner months, but this is when I need to sow more beetroots and chard to prepare for winter. More radishes need to be sown in early October so they can be harvested in December and then they can be left to provide greens over the later months.

Leaves – There’s a few new things I’d like to try this year. We have a muskmallow plant that still has some green leaves so maybe this year we could grow more, for the flowers in summer and for salad leaves in winter. My neighbour gave us some leeks in the last week of December. If they grow well in her garden, they’ll certainly be fine 4m away. I’m dying to try growing tatsoi and texsel greens too. I’ve never been particulary successful with Oriental leaves like pak choi, choi sum and kai lan. It’s always eaten by everything else in the garden, from pigeons to slugs. I think it’s time to give it another go.  

Winter squashes – We’ve never really grown winter squashes to store. We’ve grown tromboncino, spaghetti squash, red kuri and pumpkin munchkins and have always eaten them young or soon after they’ve gone orange. This year we’ve ended up with a tromboncino and a few pumpkin munchkins left over that we just never got round to eating. Our garden is small, so we don’t tend to get much left over. This year I think we’ll put a few more supports in and grow a few more things vertically. We’ll leave more tromboncino and spaghetti squash to ripen and cure and I think we’ll try ‘Crown Prince’ squash this year too.  

Maybe this time next year I’ll be able to update with an annoyingly smug post about our garden success… er that is… if home schooling hasn’t sent me mad by then.

Making a change

Short version: Human consumption of energy and demand for products is driving climate change. Everything makes a difference, from the green house emissions due to our energy uses to our personal choices leading to deforestation on the other side of the world. We are reaching a tipping point where another small increase of temperature could lead to a snowball effect that puts climate change beyond our control. If all our choices are causing climate change then we can make changes to stop it. We can make choices now, in our everyday lives to slow down climate change.

For some reason my other half saw fit to put on Climate Change – the facts by Sir David Attenborough on TV on Christmas Eve. Er… yeah… little bit hypocritical of us given the gluttony and consumerism in the holidays. 

If you haven’t seen it (it is very much worth watching), these are a few points:

Greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide and methane are causing the temperature of the earth to rise with dire consequences:

  • Death of species unable to adapt quickly enough.
  • Melting of glacial ice is leading to rising sea levels and unpredictable stormy weather is leading to flooding. Homes are destroyed and people are being relocated. The melting ice also releases trapped pockets of methane (a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) that exacerbates the problem.
  • Wildfires are raging out of control killing wildlife and destroying habitats and homes. The burning of the wood releases more carbon dioxide.

Deforestation is still continuing at a massive rate which is a problem for many species but inevitably for all, as the world’s forests, by photosynthesis, can suck up and store much of our carbon dioxide. With their ever diminishing size they are less and less able to mitigate human behaviour. Now a third of our CO2 emission is caused by deforestation. Rainforest is cleared and burned for soybeans, rubber, pasture for cattle and mostly palm oil. Demand in other countries is driving deforestation.

There have been some big changes like the switching from fossil fuels to renewable resources. Countries, depending on their situation are increasingly turning over the majority of their energy production to wind farms, solar cells or hydro electricity. There are other sources but these are the most prevalent.

Now this is the bit that is relevant to you (and me)… well all of it is relevant but it feels overwhelmingly difficult to comprehend and/or face the problem that we, as humans, have created for ourselves. Every person has a yearly carbon footprint. Everything we buy has some sort of carbon footprint. We can reduce this by simple things like insulating the house (which also reduces bills), buying less products (or by buying products of better quality that last longer). Because a quarter of the carbon footprint in the UK is food, that can be cut in half by:

  • eating everything you buy i.e. avoiding waste
  • avoiding air freighted food
  • reducing dairy and meat – especially beef and lamb

The take home message was that we can all change our own behaviour and convince others too. Right now, we can still halt climate change – but there is only a small window before we reach a tipping point.

So… all a bit bleak – but let’s try and make this easier to see. Firstly, CO2 is a colourless gas! A tonne of carbon dioxide is a bit abstract. You can think of it as a cube with sides of 27 feet – around 8.23m – so 557.44m3. (click here for the source)

Then what does that look like in terms of use? Well, driving 10,000km in a petrol car creates around 2.5 tonnes (a diesel car is higher).

Then how much do we as individuals create?

Just to give you a few figures for (click here for the source):

 CO2 emissions in tonnes – average per person
Global 20184.8
UK 20195.3
EU 20197.0
US 201916.6
China7.2
India2.0

As I understand it, these figures include energy consumption, transport, products and services. There will be some things that are improving as countries turn their energy sources over to more renewable sources. Here we can look at the Drax website and you can see what percentage of the UK’s energy is derived from which source. If you compare 10 years ago to last year, in rough figures – coal went down from 30% to 2%, gas also came down from 47% to 35%, wind went up from 3% to almost 25%, nuclear didn’t move much from around 17% and hydro, solar and biomass combined have gone from almost zero to 13%.

So much of what we buy have carbon footprints we don’t see. Take, for example, the box of chocolates that I’m feeling rather guilty about nibbling on:

Packaging – cardboard, foil, plastic – a tree was felled, metal ore was mined and extracted, crude oil was drilled and extracted as a raw material to make plastic… all of these things need a certain amount of transport and manufacturing and of course there’s also the dyes involved in the colours of the branding.

Ingredients worth noting:

  • Sugar – can be grown in the UK, but requires much processing.
  • Coconut oil – which isn’t grown here
  • Palm kernel oil – really REALLY bad as it is one of the main crops that drives deforestation.
  • Cocoa – which is definitely not grown here must be processed and shipped.
  • Milk products – the dairy industry is a pretty hard on the environment. Rearing cows is energy consuming and cows produce a lot of methane.

All the ingredients must be transported to the factory and the chocolates produced and package. Then there is transport of the chocolates to the shop (then my kitchen table). Wherever energy is used in manufacture or transport chances are it will have caused the release of greenhouse gases. Demand for the ingredients like palm oil supports deforestation. I’ve never really noticed any of that carbon footprint till today. You may be pleased to know that I no longer feel like eating them.

So, my message, in the first blog of 2021 is that it’s not too late to do something about climate change, but time is short. It does require governments and industry to make the big changes, but in turn, these changes can be driven by voters and consumer behaviour. You can do little things to make a difference. Any changes that we make, no matter how small, can make a difference – especially if everyone gets involved. You could start small to keep it achievable or just by considering more environmentally friendly options through the year you could make a difference. I’m sure you all have plenty of ideas. All are welcome in comments. I’ll be implementing some of the things I’ve mentioned in this post into New Year’s resolutions, especially considering the products I’ll be buying, but as always, I’m very edible garden orientated and I believe it’s not just about what you do yourself – but also about getting the message out there and encouraging others:

Grow food. I encourage anyone, everyone to grow some food, even if it’s just on a windowsill or a balcony. The growing plant will take in carbon dioxide. Any food you can get from what you grow will have a tiny carbon footprint in comparison to something grown using intensive farming methods or something that required transportation. I think you can also be pretty sure that the things you grow to eat didn’t encourage deforestation on some other patch of earth. Eating plants over meat is much more environmentally friendly. This is one of the things we, as a family need to look at most. We do eat far too much meat, but, if we can grow more tasty veg (and home grow is definitely tastier), especially in the winter months and maybe in the lawn (I’m thinking of replacing our diminishing patch of grass with a bed or maybe just sowing some things in the grass itself), then maybe we’ll find it easier to eat less meat.

Composting of kitchen greens and waste cardboard reduces transport of waste and reduces the need for fertilisers or shop bought compost, both of which have manufacturing, as well as transport, carbon footprints. Click on each of the following for more info: composting, fertilisers, reusing and recycling at home, reusing and recycling in the garden.

Grow more perennials and self seeders. I’m going to grow more of these this year as perennials store carbon and buying seeds annually does require them to be produced and shipped. Seed sharing with others would be another option.

Make a Seed organiser

Short version:

In December when you have little inclination to venture into the garden and you have the head space to deal with your seeds you can make a practical, repurposed seed box with the small Amazon delivery boxes and some cardboard or old cards.

There are only a few things that I can bring myself to do in the rainy, cold December garden:

  1. Sowing – there are a couple of varieties of broad beans that can be direct sown outside still (a few herbs, and salad leaves, like lambs lettuce, can be sow inside or undercover ).
  2. Harvesting – physalis, oca, Chinese artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, yacon, cauliflowers, chard, three corned leek, chard, Chinese chives, kale, purple tree collards and the last few beetroots and radishes are available.
  3. Removing cat poo and, last week, one dead rat that recalls the phrase ‘smells like something has died.’ To be honest this has put me off going into the garden more than the rain does.

Really preferring the indoors after that and in December I have the time and head space to sort out my seeds. With the plethora of ‘Black Friday /Cyber Monday’ seed sales and my ‘worst case scenario wife’ (and yes – he really does call me that) Brexit/COVID panic I now have a ridiculous number of seeds. Even if I annex the shed roof, parts of the lawn and fill abandoned water tanks and pots, I imagine I’ll still have plenty of seeds come 2025.

The number of seeds is overwhelming and through the year I find myself getting annoyed at trying to find things and forgetting to plant things. I’ve stored seeds in different labelled envelopes and jiffy bags, trying to keep my sanity. In addition, I have a large seed collection for the school edible garden that I look after too.

I would love a beautiful, shiny, metal seed tin. It just seems like a nice thing. I couldn’t find one that was the right shape and size. I soon realised that beautiful was pretty far down my list. I want a practical seed tin. I want a cheap (or free) seed tin and, very importantly, I would like an environmentally friendly tin.

Free boxes

With COVID and school bubble quarantines we have done much shopping online this year, leading to the discovery that the small packaging boxes used by Amazon are the perfect size for a seed box.

I find that this is a good way to organise seeds. Into the main sowing months February – May split into inside and outside with January, June, July, and August with only section each. In January I have nothing that I want to sow direct outside and by June there’s very little point in sowing indoors in pots unless I’m growing extra plants to fill up space outside as it becomes free.

Organising my seed packets

Indoor sowing is the only option – Sweet peppers are sown inside from mid-February to be planted out from mid-May so that goes into the February indoors section. 

Outdoor sowing is the only option – Radishes and beetroots are direct sow outdoors from March, so I put them into the March outside section.

Early indoors or later outdoors options but outdoors is better – Carrots can be sown under glass/plant indoors from February onwards or direct sown from April. I make a judgement on whether I have space indoors and deep enough pots – as carrots are not so good with being transplanted or if I can wait for carrots another couple of months. I’ve put them under April outside.

Early indoors or later outdoors options but indoors is better – Summer squash can be sown indoors from March or outdoors from mid-May. Here, I think it’s worth giving large plants, like these, a head start. Recent years there has been some really erratic weather, so I’ve put these into March indoors so that they get as long as possible a season before weather turns cold or damp.   

Waiting to sow to suit timing – Climbing beans for school if sown as soon as possible (indoors) then harvesting starts in July – when the kids are about to go on their summer holidays. The children don’t benefit from harvests during their longest holiday. Therefore, starting the seeds outdoors early July saves effort and means that they’re ready for the kids when they return. These have gone into the school box under July outdoors.

Using the box

As each month hits, when I have a couple of free days, I’ll pull out the suitable section and sow everything from one section in one go if possible.

With vegetables that can be sown in succession, once they’ve been sown, rather than go back into the original section, I put it into the next month that I think I’d like to sow them again. E.g. Radishes are in March outdoors – but when March rolls round, after I’ve sown the carrots I’ll pop them into April outside so I can sow some more in April. If in April I’ve run out of space in the garden I’ll pass them on into the next month.

Dividers

I did try making some dividers with some bits of card and folded over post it notes but the post it notes got a bit squished. I then realised that a flap was not necessary, and we could repurpose cardboard further and easily make divers from with the cardboard flaps of the bigger cardboard that we get deliveries in. This was a quick and easy step.

At the beginning of December, I found some old Christmas cards, as well as some birthday and thank you cards. I’ve kept them because they are beautiful or have lovely messages written inside and I can’t throw them away. I am a bit of a hoarder but would like to find a use for them beyond stuffing them in a box and forgetting about them for the next 5 years. Some of the cards were a perfect size for the box. So I used them as dividers. With some creative trimming others had readable messages still or lovely fronts. It’s a lovely way to repurpose (and they could still be recycled a few years down the line too) and I still have them as mementos.

I wrote on the back of the cards (because most of these were white) with a marker.

The outside

With the cards I found some used Christmas paper. So …er…definitely a hoarder. I often try and keep big, not so crumpled paper after unwrapping. I always assume I could reuse it but by the next Christmas I can never find any of the paper I had put away and/or I realise that it doesn’t look very nice and/or the Sellotape glue reside on it has gone a bit funny. I decided that this paper was perfect for covering a box. I had 2 similar looking boxes and whilst it was easy to tell by looking inside which box was mine and which one was school’s. It got a bit tedious having to check every time. At one point I even had a third box that I was building for someone.

The paper wrapped box, of course, is a bit tacky and there’s a few little bits of Sellotape glue residue on it, it’s very obviously Christmas paper and the trees are upside down on one side, but I feel a little good about life every time I pull it out. I know that I’ve given that box, those cards and that paper a second use (and they can all be recycled after when it gets too tatty). It’s a completely guilt free box. There was no energy used in the manufacture of it (the seed box I mean – obviously the original box did, but it has already served the purpose for which it was made), no resources were used to create it, no fuels were used to transport the box, no storage was required, and no money was spent on it (other than paying for the double sided sticky tape). It was also a fun craft project.

Asparagus

Short version:

A well known, long lived, perennial vegetable that tastes far superior to shop bought when home grown. It requires fertile, well draining, water retaining soil in a sunny spot. A great spring vegetable that grows in the hungry gap and once established requires little attention other than weeding. It takes some effort to start an asparagus bed and you’ll need to be patient enough to wait 3 years for the first harvest.

 Asparagus (asparagus officinalis) is the first perennial vegetable that I grew. 2 plants have been with us for 13 years and through 2 house moves. I think the variety was Gijnlim, bought as crowns from the pound shop. They started off in the first home in the ground, in a garden that was about 3x4m. When we moved to a new place that had a paved garden about the same size, I dug up the asparagus and took it with us. It lived for 5 years in a very large pot, coincidentally in Battersea near the Asparagus pub, so named because the area was famously known for growing asparagus.

They’re now in a raised bed and new asparagus plants have joined them (varieties: Connovers Colossal, Jersey Knight and Crimson Pacific).

One of the original plants is in the top right. The other short plants about 4 months after they’ve been planted.

How to grow

Before you grow asparagus, you need to understand a little about them. They are perennial plants that love fertile, well draining, moisture retaining soil i.e. with lots of good compost in it.

When you start with a seed, for the first couple of years, the stems are very thin and unrecognisable as asparagus. They reach their feathery frond state (in the picture above) at about a foot tall. These leafy green tops need to be left for the first few years to photosynthesize and provide sugars for the plant. Asparagus should ideally not be harvested till the plant is 3 years old. When the plant is established, in early spring they send up the spears that you recognise from the shops. They grow upwards in their closed bud state and then begin to branch out. The stem gets tougher as thin green branches covered in thin feathery foliage appear off the main stem. With established plants, once the spears being produced become thinner than a pencil you should leave them to grow and feed the roots.

Males plants are reported to be more productive and less prone to disease. The female will produce little poisonous scarlet berries the size of a petite pois. You could save seed and propagate new plants. This is free, but as you can see from the info above, requires much patience.  

I never got round to voicing over this… but…You can see the stems are mostly thinner than a pencil (there’s a couple at the back that I left too late to harvest). There’s a little spear still trying to grow. You can see the feathery fronds, the tiny flowers and a unripe (poisonous) berry.

Organic matter

However you choose to grow asparagus you should prepare the ground they grow in by one of the following:

  1. In spring, when planting, dig a 20cm deep trench and incorporate 5-10cm of well rotted manure into the base of this trench and then fill it with 5-10cm of the original soil. How much you fill the trench will depend on whether you’re planting plants or crowns.
  2. In winter for the environmentally friendly, recycling, cheaper route you can also dig 30cm trench and fill this with lots of green kitchen waste and brown waste like shredded cardboard. If you mix it in well with the soil around it, it will breakdown in a few months (hole composting) ready to receive the asparagus plants in spring.

Growing from seed

This is the very cheapest way to get asparagus. Sow single seeds in pots (or toilet tube rolls) indoors about 2cm deep in late winter. These can be transplanted into the garden late spring (biodegradable pots, like loo rolls, makes this more gentle on the fragile roots).  The seeds can also be sown direct mid-late spring when the weather warms up. The picture shows three little seedlings pulled out so you can see the size of the seed and the roots (don’t do this with your seedlings).

Growing from plants

You can buy little plants from specialist nurseries online. These are seedlings that are a few months old. These are cheaper than crowns but will take longer to establish.

Growing from crowns

Crowns are the roots from a year old plant. If you are adding the well composted manure in the spring then you make a mound in the trench after you’ve added your 5-10cm of soil back. If you went the composting kitchen waste route the dig a hole about 15cm deep and then make a mound in the middle. Spread the roots of the crown over the mount like hair on a head, with the growing shoot buds facing up. Cover with soil leaving the bud tips just about visible. Water in to remove any air spaces in the soil.

Plants should be around 30cm – 40cm apart.

In late autumn when the leafy fronds have turned yellow you should chop down any of the above ground growth. I either put these in the compost bin or sometimes chop them into smaller pieces and spread it over the ground as a mulch and to try and deter  the neighbours’ cats from pooing on my soil. At this point you could also mulch with some well rotted manure.

You could also add some blood, fish and bone, or other general purpose fertiliser in early spring before growth starts. It’s worth nothing that organic fertilisers are less prone to run off and therefore less likely to cause eutrophication.

they should look like these

How to Harvest

You will need to wait till the plant is around 3 years old (2 years if started from crowns)  before you can start harvesting. Once you get shoots that are thicker than a pencil you can harvest by cutting the spear at the base with a knife. In this third year you should only take a couple of shoots. Leave any shoots that are thinner than a pencil. Through the season the plant will generally produce spears that are thinner and thinner. Once plants are established, spears can appear as early as the last week of March and last for about 2 months before you need to leave the rest of the spears to turn into the feathery fronds that can then photosynthesise and feed the roots. This makes it a welcome vegetable in the hungry gap.

Little one likes them sprayed with olive oil and roasted.

How they taste

Once you eat fresh, home grown asparagus, the stuff you get in the shops seems absolutely pants in comparison. I guess it’s hard to describe the taste of asparagus as it tastes… well… like asparagus. However, if you’ve tasted shop bought asparagus and hated it, don’t pass judgement till you’ve tried it very fresh.

It tastes lovely and ‘clean’ blanched or steamed. If you sauté it or roast it, it develops a complex nutty flavour.

Purple asparagus is reportedly sweeter. We ate 2 spears of our Crimson Pacific last year and it was lovely, but I think we need another year with a bigger crop (and maybe to try a few more varieties) to really be able to compare.

Problems

curling stem of a nibbled spear

Slugs and snails can eat through the base of a spear, felling the entire thing. If you notice early enough you can still salvage the spear. Sometimes they nibble the tips causing the asparagus to curl. I haven’t done research on this, but I suspect this is because there are hormones all round the tips of growing shoots causing growth all around the tip at the same rate. When there are less hormones on one side there becomes uneven growth so one side grows faster than the other.

I suspect the biggest problem is actually me. Asparagus does not do well with competition so their bed should be weeded carefully by hand to avoid damaging the fragile roots. Impatience and lack of space in the small garden means that I am incapable of leaving the asparagus bed alone and I keep planting other edibles in and around them. They then compete for nutrients and then grow taller than the asparagus and shade it. Unfortunately I find it impossible to stop myself.

Jerusalem artichokes

Short version:

A tall, perennial, sunflower like plant that grows in full sun, in almost any type of soil to produce knobbly tubers that contain inulin and can be eaten raw or cooked.

The Jerusalem artichoke (also called sunchokes) – Helianthus tuberosus – is in the Asteraceae family like globe artichokes, though they are more like Chinese artichokes in the Lamiaceae family. Like Chinese artichokes, you harvest the tubers and propagate via tubers. Jerusalem artichokes however make tall, impressive plants like globe artichokes. Like the Chinese artichokes, posted last week, this is my first year growing them, so I have limited experience. I do love them though, so I thought it would be worth sharing and I can update as I find more about them.

How to grow

These came in a gourmet roots pack with Chinese artichokes as little plants. They were put in the ground in May, but like Chinese artichoke these can be grown from tubers, and like Chinese artichokes if any tubers are left in the ground then plants will come back next year and are therefore perennial. Because the tubers are larger than the Chinese artichokes you are less likely to leave some behind. I will keep a tuber spare in some potting compost in the shed over winter in case I’m too thorough with harvesting. Each tuber is capable of producing more than one shoot.

Jerusalem artichokes will do fine in just about any soil, except waterlogged as this will rot the roots. However, deep, fertile, well-draining but water retaining soil (can be achieved with plenty of organic matter) will give the biggest tubers. They do fine in big pots. I grew mine in old, repurposed water tanks.

The tubers can be planted from February to April, around 10cm deep and 30 cm apart. These do grow into big plants so do need some space as they can grow up to 10 feet tall. They make great living screens or do well in the back of a bed as they can still reach the sun. They can also be cut back and kept at 5 feet tall if that suits your space better. This also discourages flowering. If you do get flowers it is best to cut them back so that plant can put that energy into producing tubers. I have also read advice about earthing up the soil up the stem to support it and for better tubers. To be honest this plant is done very well despite my neglect. The only thing I did was shove the plants in very big pots and then stake with a bamboo cane when they got tall. I have run a dripper watering system through the garden (saves time as well as water – which you can read about here) so that was taken care of. However, don’t underestimate overcast days and strong winds. I made the mistake of turning the water off when the sun disappeared, and I lost one of my Jerusalem artichokes. We ate them anyway, but the tubers were much smaller and drier (shown in the very first photo at the top of the page).

How to harvest

It is best to leave this plant for as long as possible to get the biggest tubers. The leaves will start to go yellow and die as the weather gets cold. In this particular year (in London, UK) it was mid-November. You pull the stem up and some of the artichokes will come with it but really you will need to dig. Any plants you want to leave for later harvest, you can cut the stem back to a short stump and then leave the tops over the soil to keep it warm. They are fine to remain there even into December (as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged, and the ground doesn’t freeze). Once harvested they store in the fridge in a covered bowl fine for a week.

How to eat

The tubers have a thin skin that do not need to be peeled. The dirt should be carefully washed away though. If you would like to peel them, you can use just a spoon to scrape away the top layer and any bits you don’t want. Be aware that they do discolour very quickly so have a bowl of lemony water ready to receive them.

They can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw they have a texture and taste a bit like water chestnuts, with a nuttiness and a very slight taste of artichoke hearts. I like them roasted with garlic and rosemary or thrown in with a roasting chicken. They take on flavours well and the inside becomes very soft like potatoes do, but silkier rather than floury. I feel they lose the nuttiness with cooking but acquire this sweet, artichoke heart-y, potato-y taste. If you do roast them, if you make sure they are not touching their skins can gain a bit of crispiness.

 Warning

I thought I’d best put this in as my other half had a bad night after eating a few too many. Like yacon, Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin, which is a sugar that humans cannot digest. It is a prebiotic (not a probiotic) that feeds the flora in the gut (as opposed to repopulating the gut). It’s good for your digestive system, but it can cause bloating and flatulence if you eat too much, too quickly. Apparently, your digestive system can adjust if you can introduce it slowly.  

Chinese artichokes

Short version:

An easy to grow, perennial tuber that can look a bit like a tiny Michelin man, with top growth that looks like mint. They are not related to artichokes… though maybe, just maybe … when sautéed in butter it has a taste a little like steamed artichokes.

Stachys affinis – often called Chinese artichokes or crosnes – are in fact in the Lamiaceae family (not the Asteraceae family, like artichokes), which is the one that contains many aromatics like mint, sage, oregano, rosemary, lavender, balms, catnip and thyme. Chinese artichokes do in fact have leaves that look like mint, but they have no aroma at all. This is the first year that I have grown them so I have only a limited amount of experience with them, but I think they’re so crazy looking and tasty that I couldn’t wait to share.

How to grow

I bought these from ‘Suttons’ as part of a gourmet roots collection. They arrived in May as little plants. I have read that they can be grown from the tubers that are planted into the ground from October to March – pointed end up, 5 cm deep and around 30cm apart. Hopefully, what I’ve read about them regrowing from tubers left in the ground will make them an easy to grow perennial in my garden for years to come. This is what piqued my interest when I read about them in my trusty ‘How to grow Perennial Vegetables’ book by Martin Crawford. From digging around I can see how some of these tiny tubers could easily be left behind. I’ll probably keep a few spare tubers at the end of the season in a pot of compost in the shed over the winter as a precaution. The tubers can rot if left in waterlogged soil over winter, but I’ve read that growth in spring can be really early so tubers are best put in in late winter.

They like fertile free draining but moist soil and plenty of sun. Once planted though, they can be ignored. They grow to about 40cm tall. They can grow flowers. Mine didn’t this year, but if they appear it is best to remove them so that energy goes into tubers instead.

A few of my tubers have appeared to be eaten by some mini critter. This looks similar to what happened to some of my carrots this year, where there were tracks on the surface. It only affected about 5 or 6 out of the 50 or so tubers.

How to harvest

These are ready to harvest in the UK from late October. I was planning to leave mine for another month, but a cat made the choice for me by digging up a third of the plants. There were still plenty of tubers, no bigger than my thumb (first week of November). I was surprised by the varying shapes and sizes and the depth at which they grew. The roots are very brittle so it’s not possible to just yank then out by the stems. You need to dig, and quite deep too. I found some tubers about 40cm deep. Apparently thick, organic mulch encourages growth closer to the surface, something I’ll try next year.

Apparently if you leave till first frost, they get sweeter. I’ll let you know if it’s true later in the year. They also don’t store too well once harvested (they had started to go brown at the ends within a day of being in the fridge) so I’ll leave the rest as they are and just have a dig every time I want to cook some. I have read that they store well in the ground as long as it doesn’t become waterlogged.

How to eat

They have a very thin skin (part of the reason they don’t store well) so they don’t need peeling. They can be a bit fiddly to wash. When they come in odd shapes with arms, I’ve found that I’ve had to snap the arms off to access the ingrained soil. Any imperfections can be scrapped off with a nail because they are so delicate.

These can be eaten raw. They have a crispness like water chestnuts and a similar taste, with a hint of radish, but much milder in flavour.

When sauteed in butter they lose a little of that crispness and gain a bit of texture and taste closer to taro. Their flavour deepens and becomes more nutty with a bit of sweetness. When I do think they do taste a little like the steamed heart of a globe artichoke. Just a little mind you, and they don’t have the weird thing that happens with artichokes that make everything else taste sweet.

Pumpkin carving 2020

Happy Halloween!

Another Halloween has rolled round and with it the excuse to carve another pumpkin. This year little one asked for Octonauts. Yes plural. I really should have pinned her down to a single one but she found it hard to choose. I then made the mistake of buying a very large pumpkin. Yup, I’m afraid, as usual, I didn’t grow this one. I still can’t justify giving so much space to a huge pumpkin vine in the garden for the sake of a tasteless £1 Halloween pumpkin. Yes, granted, I could plant a carvable pumpkin that tastes good too but I like to stick to red kuri pumpkins. These taste great and can be trained vertically to save space.

Anyway, a big pumpkin just made the temptation to do something challenging too hard to resist. so here it is, this years Halloween pumpkin.

This is little one’s pumpkin. She drew her design on the pumpkin in biro. I then cut the outline of her shapes with the Thai carving knife. She then gouged out most of her bits with a little carving tool. I kid you not. That was the scariest 20 minutes of my Halloween. I just hovered around her both hands ready to grab, rearranging her hands so she wouldn’t hurt herself.

Last year’s pumpkin carving post goes into more detail about how it was done. This year there are just a few photos from the process, which you may not be surprised to know, took a friggin’ long time. So long that in the end I couldn’t be bothered to try and cook something out of the bland insides this year.

Here it is in the light with some creepy veg that we DID grow in the garden. The carrots grew like this because I added too much fertiliser to the pot. The pumpkin munchkins grew like this, I think, because the young fruit had been pierced by the berry pirates (aka Southern shield bug).

And here are some more photos because I’m sadly rather proud of it and it took sooooo long….

Lambs lettuce

Short version:

A slow growing, winter hardy salad that grows in short rosettes and happily self-seeds. It can be sown direct into most soils but also does well in pots on balconies and rooftops. It can be sown now in October or in the spring.

I think that lambs lettuce is the name most commonly used for valerianella locusta in these parts, but this leaf is often known as corn salad, field salad and mâche. I have also heard that this is the leaf in the Rapunzel story that the mother craved so badly, so I have called it rapunzel when showing it to kids in the edible garden at school.

How to grow

October is a great month to sow this salad. There is very little that can still be sown this late in the year, but this is a great salad to sow September to October in preparation for the winter months. It has sprung up in the school edible garden, having self seeded, a testament to it being a good time to grow it. It can also be sown in March and April. It does well sown directly into the soil outdoors. The soil does not need to be particularly fertile and it grows well in pretty much all soil conditions, though it does like full sun. It can also be sown in early winter under cover.

You need to give these plants some space as they grow in rosettes that hug the ground. They should really be about 15cm apart and I’ve found that pretty much all the lambs lettuce seeds I sow germinate. You can either show thinly in rows about 15cm apart (though you can harvest/thin the plants that are too close to each other) or what I like to do is pop them in and around other, taller plants, that are not very bushy or that grow slowly. As they grow so low and have few needs, they don’t form much competition.

My preferred time to grow lambs lettuce though is now, in October, after I’ve harvested and cleared some of the other annuals. They fill the time and space over winter and can be harvested before the spring crops go in. They have quite thick, slightly waxy leaves which might contribute to their winter hardiness (British winters anyway). They do well with frost and the cold weather isn’t detrimental to their taste or texture. They do grow slowly though, especially so in winter but it’s a nice one to just sow in a box or pot and dump on a balcony or roof, to be ignored for a couple of months.

It grows like a weed and self-seeds very well so you can establish a patch somewhere in the garden and leave it to do its thing. If you prefer your salad less unruly you can collect the seed heads after flowering and just shake them into a bag. Just as a weird warning though – I have done this twice and have found that there is an odd smell.  

They seem to be left alone by the slugs and snails in the garden.

How to harvest

When thinning the extra plants can be eaten.  They can then be treated as a cut and come again salad leaf by removing the outer most leaves each time or the whole plant can be pulled out. They are often found in salad bags in small rosettes. The flowers are also edible but as it diverts energy into flowering, leaf production decreases. Unlike many other leafy greens, the taste does not diminish with flowering.

How they taste

It is basically a lettuce like leaf with a hint of nuttiness. It has a bit more body and texture than lettuce though. We often eat them in salads or just as a garden snack. Little one loves to graze on it so we try and grow it where she can access it. She’s often quite fussy about salad leaves and won’t eat things like cos or iceberg lettuce – either home grown, or shop bought. They can be wilted and seasoned or thrown into cooked dishes at the last minute.