Egyptian Walking onions

Short version:

A perennial, easy to grow onion that propagates, without much input from us, via bulbils. All of the plant is edible, but the bulbs and bulbils are small and fiddly so the leaves are great, instead, as a sweeter version of a spring onion. Plant in well-draining, fertile soil in a sunny spot for onion-y greens for most of the year.

From the moment I read about them I knew I just had to get some. I think that moment was whilst researching the internet for perennial vegetables about 3 years ago. Called Allium proliferum it does indeed have the characteristic smell and taste of sulphurous compounds like other alliums. I’ve also heard that (or read as no-one else I know talks about vegetables at great length) they’re also called tree onions, topset onions and perennial onions. These are all suitable names. They are indeed prolific, grow tall when encouraged, have odd little bulbils at the top and are indeed perennial. My favourite name by far is ‘Egyptian walking onions’. I haven’t been able to figure out if they have their origins in Egypt, but I guess you can say they ‘walk’. It’s not a triffid thing. You won’t see them pull out their roots and go for a wander, cartoon style. What they do instead, is grow mini bulbs, called bulbils, where other alliums grow seeds. When these are ripe the stem dies and falls to the ground. The bulbils will scatter and grow where they have fallen. Of course, I feel the need to do the maths here. If the stem grows to 50cm and we assume that the bulbils fall where the top of the stem ends and this happens once a year, we are looking at:

speed = distance / time

= 500mm / 365.25 (days in a year)

= 1.37mm a day

Divide by 24 hours

= 0.057mm an hour

Divide by 60 minutes

= 0.00095mm a min

Divide by 60 seconds

= 0.000016mm a second

Or in standard scientific terms 1.6×10-8m/s

There is of course nothing scientific about it as there are far too many assumptions but I just like the idea that they could be moving a millimetre or so a day.

Growing

You can order them off the internet as bulbils. You can’t get these from the big commercial providers, but you can usually find then somewhere on the internet from specialised sellers or on ebay. You literally stick them in the ground (or in a pot) in the autumn and by February you’ll see the shoots. Once you have them growing (they can be very slow in the first year) and they’re producing bulbils you can either let them fall as they like, or you can harvest the bulbils to eat or to save for growing elsewhere. If you leave the bulbils on the stem and the stem doesn’t fall, you’ll still find that the bulbils will start shoots and roots anyway. I usually pick them and shove in the soil or in a pot to put on a windowsill over winter to provide a winter supply. If you pick the bulbils when ripe (around September) and stick them straight into the ground you will get shoots in October, but growth will be slow, and the survival of the greens will depend on how mild the winter is. Walking onions are hardy so, come spring you’ll get both the bulbs and the bulbils resprouting fairly early.

In my heavy, soggy clay soil, they’ll grow but they’re not particularly happy. They do better in the raised beds that have plenty of compost added. They can also grow in some shade but prefer plenty of sun.

Harvesting

The leaves are great as spring onions for a long period of the year. They’re sweeter than spring onions are. You can harvest the bulbils for eating when they’re green and therefore have less papery skin. We don’t eat the bulbils. Instead I have been using them in an attempt to populate the whole garden and bits of other people’s gardens with these fabulous plants. If you want to save the bulbils for storing then you need to pick them around September when their skin has become papery. Don’t do what I do and forget to pick them and suddenly find that they’ve all sprouted. In winter, when the walking onions are not doing particularly well, this gap is filled by the three-cornered leek. This is another perennial allium, but it is one that is considered invasive in this country. When lacking in walking onions I’m more than happy to eat the three-cornered leeks into submission.  

Eating

All the plant can be eaten but the bulbs are fairly small and fiddly, and the bulbils are tiny and very fiddly. Also, if you eat the bulbs then they’re not going to be perennial. We have always just used the shoots. They’re excellent raw and in salads and are not too hot. Frying increases the sweetness and the flavour becomes very mild. They’re great in kimchi. Once we are able to grow patches of it I suspect we’ll happily fry them as a green.

They make such an interesting vegetable, they’re perennial, they look after themselves and they’re tasty. This is something that will have a permanent place in our garden and any gardens we may have in the future.

Squash Surprise!

Short version:

Squashes (Cucurbitaceae Cucurbita) need fertile soil and lots of water, but a smaller variety, like ‘Pumpkin Munchkin’ can be trained up a trellis or the medium sized ones can be grown over structures like fences or walls for an abundant crop with a small footprint. They are easy to grow, and the large seeds and the bright fruit are fun for kids. There are many varieties in the same species meaning cross pollination gives potluck seeds. Grow these for a squash surprise! (disclaimer: not necessarily a good surprise  \(o~o)/ )

There is a plethora of different types of squash. They’re all under the family ‘Cucurbitaceae’. This includes courgettes and pumpkins and cucumber and melons. They are technically fruits as they develop from the ovary and contain the seeds. These fruits all have the similar jagged edged palmate leaves. They mostly grow on vines, cling with tendrils and can grow many fruit. Even a ‘bushy’ courgette grows on an incredibly short vine if you look at the plant by the end of the season. Courgettes are just squashes that are picked young and unripe. If left to mature and ripen the courgette will grow to become a marrow that is no longer recognisable as a courgette.

Under the genus Cucurbita (this is the sub group of Cucurbitaceae that have higher nutritional value and doesn’t include the cucumbers or melons) there are many species, but the ones that I’ve grown fall under these 3:

Cucurbita pepo – courgettes, patty pan, spaghetti squash, pumpkin (pumpkin is a broad term and is often used for some of the varieties in maxima also)

Cucurbita moschata – tromboncino, butternut squash,

Cucurbita maxima – Turks turban, hubbard, red kuri

All the varieties within the same species can pollinate each other. This means you can provide a pollination partner without having to grow 2 of the same variety if you are lacking in space. Squashes favour cross pollination. They grow female flowers and male flowers which often will not open at the same time on the same plant. This is often why you might find yourself with lots of courgette flowers but barely any courgettes. You can hand pollinate with a paintbrush or by picking a male flower, removing the petals and brushing the pollen laden stamens onto the stigma. The cross pollination will not affect the type of squash you are growing. The tricky bit is when saving seed from a squash. E.g. if you grow a ‘Turks turban’ near a ‘hubbard’, then you take the seeds from the ‘Turks turban’ – the plant you grow from that seed may not produce ‘Turks turbans’. You can read more about this in ‘Pollination, fertilisation and variation’.

The following is a perfect example… not of how to grow squash… but how a squash can be a total surprise!

I never sowed this. Not intentionally anyway. I built this new bed in January 2019 with reused bricks. Because my soil is very heavy clay, I incorporated lots of organic matter. This was a hole about 40 cm deep. I filled it with the kitchen scraps and shredded cardboard for about 2 months. I had a sheet of cardboard on top to protect it from critters and would just lift the cardboard and chuck stuff in (see ‘Hole composting’). After I had planted some purple tree collard, wild cabbage (2 perennial brassicas) and some Egyptian Walking onions, a few squash plants started to grow in this corner. I knew that what grew might not grow too well in our climes or be tasty, but I thinned to the strongest plant to see what would happen. This is what grew. I still have no idea what it is. It did at least prove (if you can call one example proof), the theory that I knew: that seeds from fruit do not necessarily produce a plant that grows the same fruit. We had never eaten anything like this squash. Because it grew fine in our garden, I suspect it was one of our other squashes grown the year previously having cross pollinated with something else in the neighbourhood. If you save seed from something that has grown in your garden before, chances are it would be something that grows well in your area. If it came from a shop bought squash grown abroad it may not grow well in the British weather. I still don’t know what this is… so if anyone can enlighten me, I’d be ever so grateful. It was really tasty, and I’d like to grow them again. I have of course saved the seed, but what grows from that would be anyone’s guess!

Generally, squashes are also split into two types for use:

Summer squash – when the fruits are picked immature, usually in the summer (hence the name). This would include courgettes (or zucchini if you live across the pond) and patty pan squashes, which look nothing like courgettes, but taste similar. If you pick tromboncino when young they can be used as a summer squash.

Winter squash – are picked when the fruits are fully ripe. The skin becomes harder and they can be left to ‘cure.’ This means leaving them around 2 weeks in a warm, dry place to allow the skin to harden further for longer term storage. The curing can also make the squash sweeter. These include butternut squash, pumpkins, Turks turban, acorn… basically all the ones with hard skins that are OK left out of the fridge for months to be a source of food over winter.

How to grow

Due to the large variation in squashes, look at individual seed packets for different sowing times. We sowed Tromboncino in March. Then spaghetti squash wasn’t sown till a few months later.

All squash need full sun, plenty of water and lots of fertile soil. If growing in pots they need to be very very very… did I mention VERY?…. large to hold the water and nutrients.

Prepare a sunny spot by adding lots of well-rotted manure or compost if you have that available. I don’t. So instead I practise lots of ‘hole composting’ in the chosen spot. In the winter months I dig holes in the local area and throw in my kitchen waste. I stop around February to give the waste plenty of time to decompose.

I prefer to sow my seeds on a windowsill in large-ish individual pots made of recycling materials. I try to start them as early as possible to give them the longest growing season, but not too early as to have them festering in the pot indoors as it’s too cold to plant outside. Ha! Very vague and unhelpful! Basically, follow the instructions that come with your seeds, but if they say sow March to end of April, I would try and sow as early as possible in March. I then try and keep the plants indoors for as long as the pot has the space. Harden off by placing the pot outdoors during the day for a few days. Plant out in the pre-prepared space then water immediately to help the roots and soil settle.

Keep the plants well-watered in warm weather. Having  grown squashes for about 12 years the only thing that seems to be a problem (and has been a problem every year) is powdery mildew. This will often be in the hotter weather and is affected by high humidity. This can be controlled by watering the soil rather than the leaves (so a dripper system is good for this) and giving the plants plenty of space (my rather tightly packed garden is probably why I always have a problem) so that air can circulate. If you do spot signs of powdery mildew, remove the affected leaves and then spray both sides of all the leaves with a mixture of water with half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda, half a teaspoon of cooking oil and a few drops of washing up liquid. This has often worked for us in the past for long enough to let the last of the fruit mature.

Choosing squashes for different spaces

Courgettes

We’ve grown lots of these in the past but in our most recent home we’ve replaced them with tromboncinos. Courgettes are summer squashes. If you leave them too long, they turn into marrows which are much waterier and more tasteless. We’ve grown yellow ones and round ones for something more interesting. We have also grown patty pan ones, but this is going back about 5 years and I couldn’t find any photos.

Tromboncino

We began growing these as substitutes for courgettes as they taste quite like courgettes but vine so that we could have a smaller footprint. They basically take up about half of the soil space that courgettes do and utilise the space above instead. They do well trained over fences and walls. Because they’re treated as summer squashes they don’t have to spend a long time on the vine so just hanging around for a few weeks before picking is OK without support. Because they are the same species as butternut squash we’ve left some to mature too. They grow ginormous! Their skin does harden (so needs peeling) and the flesh inside becomes yellow and tastes quite a lot like butternut. We haven’t tried curing them yet. The vines grow very long so can be started where there is less sun and trained into areas of more sun. For pollination I grew 2 plants this year as the butternut squash last year wasn’t particularly successful. For more info see ‘Tromboncinos‘.

Hubbard

This squash was not something I intended to grow. I sowed a spaghetti squash. It was to have all this space over the bike shed to ramble. And the bike shed was going to support any heavy fruit. This is not spaghetti squash. Just in case it was just a funny shaped one I picked one at the same time as you would pick spaghetti squash, i.e. before the skin goes too yellow. It was nothing like a spaghetti squash. We were sad because my little one loves the spaghetti like insides. Instead it was something that was starting to taste like pumpkin. I let the next one mature and it was a delicious, creamy, pumpkin that was like the red kuri squashes I grew but a bit sweeter. The vine is fairly vigorous and produced 4 squashes. Luckily in the same area of the garden there was a Turks turban and a red kuri. This shows that even seed suppliers can get it wrong. I swear it couldn’t have been me mixing up my seeds as I had never seen this squash until it grew. It turned out to be a fortunate accident. They have very large tasty fruit. Luckily this bike shed was able to support it.

Spaghetti squash

These were the rest of the packet that did grow as expected. Spaghetti squash is just really fun as spaghetti squash. Cutting in circular cross sections give you longer spaghetti like strands. When cut lengthways you cut those strands up. It’s fun to unravel the strands after roasting. They can grow up to a foot long and about half of that wide. We’ve found these can be trained up a trellis, but the fruit needs some extra support. We don’t tend to cure these and pick them for eating straight away like summer squashes so these taste more like courgette.

Pumpkin munchkin

The pumpkin munchkin was grown because I knew I wouldn’t have space to let any pumpkins ramble. This spot is really sunny once you get above the shade of the fence, so these had to grow vertically. The pumpkins are around the size of a fist, so these were perfect to train up a support. They grew really well due to the hole composting in that spot in the winter before planting. Each plant gave about 10 pumpkins. They were really cute baked whole – either as a savoury or sweet pumpkin. For a sweet pumpkin the space inside was filled with cream, cinnamon, nutmeg and a whole load of sugar. They were nice enough and fun for the little one. They tasted fine but not what I would call amazing.

Turks turban

The Turks turban is very cool to look at but it was a pain in the backside to peel and made a very watery curry. The flesh was more courgette like and less pumpkiny. The squash is quite large and needs something solid to rest on.

Red Kuri

Chosen for its small size and taste to grow over an arch. It never quite made it over the arch but the vine this year did produce 3 lovely tasting squashes. They are rich, creamy and taste quite like chestnuts. The vine is nowhere near as vigorous as the tromboncino, hubbard or pumpkin munchkin.  

Cooking and eating squashes

Generally, for ease we peel, deseed, chop into chunks and roast in oil with a pinch of salt. This works for all of the squashes. Some will be more watery than others and taste of the squashes can vary, not only with variety, but with ripeness and growing conditions.

The rich creamy pumpkins like red kuri and Hubbard and the unknown squash make great soup, sauces and curries or roasted as a side dish. A squash soup with stock, lemon grass, basil (Thai basil if you have it – which grows really well outdoors here) and coconut milk is great for making in a huge batch and freezing.

The pumpkin munchkins are great roasted or baked with a variety of stuffings in the hollow where the seeds were.

The Turks turban and spagetti squash work well as vegetable side dishes.

Tromboncino, like courgettes can be boiled, fried or roasted when immature. They’re fantastic roasted or sautéed when more mature.

Next year I think we’ll stick to tromboncinos, spaghetti squash (it’s one of the best ways to get vegetables into my little monkey), hubbard or red kuri (depending on how sturdy the support is going to be) and we’ll try the seeds from the surprise squash. I’m a little excited already. Yes… I know… tragic!

Composting

Short version: Compost certain types of kitchen and garden waste to get free fertiliser in a way that’s great for the environment. The cheapest and easiest way to compost is to take green kitchen scraps and bury them in a hole in the garden. Seriously. That’s it.

I’ve split this into 3 parts on the website pages as it’s a loooong read but kept it intact for the blog so it’s in order. If you don’t want to scroll through the whole thing here are the separate links:

Why and what to compost

Hole Composting

Bin Composting

Why compost?

You can look at the nitrogen cycle and see how this single nutrient moves from the soil, to plants, to animals (sometimes) and back to the soil again in an endless cycle. 

It’s not all about nitrogen though. Plants need 13 minerals in order to thrive. Of these nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are needed in large quantities and sulphur, magnesium and calcium are needed in lesser quantities. The other 7 are needed in very small amounts. Basically, once a plant depletes the nutrients out of the soil those nutrients need to be replaced. In nature the plant will in due course die (or parts will die, like the leaves in autumn), or get eaten and poo-ed out (yes – we’re all thinking Lion King… ) and then these nutrients are replaced back in the soil. For a healthy garden it’s important to put these nutrients back in as we grow and take things out. Otherwise they’re not there for the next thing you grow. Of course, you can buy a packet of fertiliser in the shops but then you may want to consider what goes into fertilisers. I don’t have a fear of chemicals. It’s the energy and cost to the earth that I’m worried about. You can see the arguments in ‘Fertilisers’ and ‘Eutrophication.’

Also, why pay for something, when you can use stuff you were going to throw away anyway. Compost, made from a variety of kitchen and garden waste, will contain these minerals. The amounts will depend on how much of these minerals the dead matter had to begin with. Also, with compost you get a good growth medium. It holds water well but drains well too. That is something fertilisers won’t give you.

Another thing to consider is – what happens to this waste otherwise? If you have a council that collects everything in one go, then you can expect the waste to go to landfill. If you have a council that collects garden waste or food waste that’s better – but if you process it yourself then that’s less energy being spent on transporting (yes they’re making the journey round the houses anyway – but extra weight requires extra fuel) and then processing it. Even your cardboard boxes are great for composting.

What to compost?

From the house:

  • Vegetable and fruit peelings and bits (apple cores, banana peels, that orange that went mouldy at the bottom of the fruit bowl)
  • coffee grounds and tea leaves (we compost tea bags – but be aware that the bag itself will often contain plastics see previous post ‘Composting tea bags’)
  • NO dairy, oils or meat.
  • Shredded cardboard and paper without inks or dyes. A bit of common sense may be needed e.g. A paper towel used to mop up spilled juice or something is fine but not if you’ve cleaned up sauce or oil. Remove plastic and labels from cardboard.

From the garden:

  • Any plant matter that is not diseased or heavily infested with pests.
  • NO roots and seeds of perennial weeds. Be aware that any seeds may not compost and could sprout when you use your compost.
  • Any wood bits should be chopped up or you are literally looking at years for that bad boy to decompose.

Chopping things up helps to speed up the process but if you’re quite lazy like me you don’t need to. You just have to leave it to compost for longer.

For those who want a bit of jargon:

Green waste is leafy stuff, green stems, grass cuttings, the kitchen peelings and cut offs, coffee and tea. It is rich in nitrogen.

Brown waste is things like cardboard, paper and woody garden waste. It tends to take longer to break down and it is rich in carbon.

Hole Composting

What to compost?

For hole composting you’re best sticking to green waste from the kitchen: Vegetable and fruit peelings, cut offs and cores, tea leaves (bags are fine – but be aware that the bag itself will often contain plastics – see ‘Composting teabags’) and coffee grounds. You can add a small amount of brown waste like shredded cardboard.

How to hole compost?

I have an old plastic sweet tub that I keep next to the sink that I just sling stuff in. Something with a lid keeps smells in and flies out (mostly fruit flies as house flies are attracted to meat). Every few weeks I’ll give it a good wash (in the dishwasher usually – cause I’m lazy) just to keep the smells and mould at bay. I don’t use composting bags (bags that go into compost that break down) as they require energy to process the materials, to make and to deliver… and they’re not free. Also the smell in my tub isn’t bad as it’s all vegetable and fruit matter and stays on the counter top a maximum of a week. I do use composting bags for the council collected food waste. That smell just makes me want to go shower. If composting bags help you to compost, then better to compost and use a bag than not composting at all.

When it’s full I’ll either bury it in the garden or put it in the compost bin. Despite saying that hole composting is the best, I mention a compost bin because I’m afraid it isn’t always appropriate to use hole composting.

Dig a hole. I just use a trowel. For a large sweet tub, I dig a hole that’s about 40cm wide and about 20cm deep. The deeper you bury, the less likely something will be attracted to it and dig it up. We have cats and foxes around us, and they don’t care for the type of stuff I bury.

Chuck the contents of the tub in. Give it a mix with the soil underneath it (and maybe an extra chop with the trowel) to introduce lots of microorganisms to it.

Cover it with the remaining soil.

Where to hole compost?

My memory isn’t as good as it used to be so when I hole compost, I start at one end of the garden, bury my kitchen waste and then mark the next spot to dig with a trowel.

I move hole by hole round the garden and when I get to the end in about 2 months or so, I’ll go back to where I first started. Things will have had time to turn into lovely compost, especially as the worms and microorganisms in the soil will have helped out. The worms will burrow through the soil and compost and aerate it The microorganisms need air to do their thing and, albeit slowly, the worms tunnelling through will help spread out the compost with its nutrients through the soil around it.

If you have any perennial plants, then you want to bury away from the roots. By digging you can damage the roots. You also don’t want to put a large amount of uncomposted material too close to a young plant. During the breakdown process the plant that is growing and the microorganisms doing the breaking down compete for resources. Therefore, it can be worse for the plant in the short term.

When to hole compost?

This is something that I prefer to do in the winter months. This is when I have the most access to the soil as many of the plants have died back.

If you grow annuals, then you should wait till all the plants have been harvested and then fill your growing space with lots of buried pockets of potential goodness. Start doing it as soon as you have harvested and carry on till around early February. Then the material has time to break down before planting begins in spring. 

This is why as well as hole composting, I do have a compost bin (see ‘Bin composting‘ for details). I can’t always access the soil to dig a hole, so during this time it goes into a compost bin.

A variation on hole composting

Every now and then I reclaim a bit of the lawn and make another vegetable bed or find myself a pallet that I recycle into a raised bed (see ‘Pallet planter’). I have 2 ways to fill the beds that don’t involve buying compost:

  1. Cover the bed with a couple of sheets of cardboard. Then every time I have a sweet tub full of waste or have garden waste, I lift the edge of the cardboard, chuck the waste in and then let the cardboard fall back down. The cardboard keeps animals from digging in there. Occasionally I shred a cardboard box and add that in and sometimes when I have a spare moment, I’ll give it a mix with a garden fork. Because you’re not digging a hole once a week it’s even lazier and quicker.
  2. When I haven’t had access to the soil in the summer months, I collect the kitchen and garden waste in a compost bin and then just pour all that in, in one go.  

When the bed is as full of compostables as I’d like, I give it all a good mix and cover it with a 5cm layer of old compost. This will usually be the ‘spent’ compost from pots that have had annual fruit and vegetables growing in it and it would be low on nutrients. I then leave it for around 2 months for the worms and other organisms to move up into it out of the soil and for the microorganisms to break it down. The smaller everything is chopped up before it goes in the more it would have decomposed. Bits of wood don’t decompose quickly.

Anyway, hole composting is great when you don’t have the space for a compost bin, or just want an easy way to add nutrients back into the soil.

You can really see the results of the composting. January 2019 I made this pallet planter. The bottom of it had sheets of turf that I had removed from the lawn. This also introduced microorganisms and worms. The middle was all garden and kitchen waste then it was topped with soil from spent pots:

So for times when hole composting doesn’t work – or it is just isn’t for you:

Bin Composting

What to compost?

You need a good balance of green and brown waste. Too much green and you get a slimy rather wet mush. Too much brown and it can be dry and slow to compost.

If your compost bin gets slimy and wet, you need to add more brown. If it is too dry you can add water and/or more green.

How to bin compost?

Put everything into a compost bin. Turn it regularly with a garden fork to aerate, as the microorganisms that break down the organic matter need oxygen. Be patient. It takes time for your waste to be turned into compost. Chopping things up small will speed up the process but then it takes time and effort. Turning regularly speeds things up but again requires time and effort. You may have also spotted a problem here. If you are going to be constantly adding waste, then no matter how much you aerate it there will always be some bits that have only been hanging around for a few days. Therefore, ideally, you need more than one. You fill one up and then aerate that one and allow it lots of time to decompose as you fill up your second one.

There is often a brown liquid (leachate) that is rich in nutrients that drains off composters. This is can be used neat or diluted as a liquid fertiliser. 

How to choose a bin?

A bin that is NOT airtight or waterproof allows little organisms like worms and millipedes to get in and help to break the matter down. They must then have an escape route. A bin with the correct balance of greens, browns and water should heat up, which makes break down faster. You don’t want to trap any helpful creatures in there. There are a variety of compost bins on the market and some that you can make yourself. These are the ones that I’ve come across.

Pallet composter

This is the bee’s knees of composters. You build a cube with an open top and bottom out of 4 pallets. Alternatively, you use 3 pallets and leave the front open too to make turning easier. My dad made one.

If you have the space and lots of pallets this is a cheap and environmentally friendly option. It allows access for worms and easy aeration. I have never had a garden with enough space. I don’t think anyone in London would. Don’t forget – you ideally need 2 compost bins.

The open bottomed upside cone composter

This was one I hated that came with the house that we were living in about 10 years ago. It was basically a green plastic cylinder which tapered towards the top and had a removable lid. The open base was supposed to allow organisms to enter and so you could remove the whole structure, leaving compost where it used to be, but what happened instead was whenever I tried to remove the tight lid, I’d lift the whole structure and half decomposed matter would pour onto my shoes. The tapered top meant that it was hard to get a garden fork in to aerate it. Due to the open bottom it had to be kept on soil. I hated how much space it took up and how it couldn’t be moved. This is just a picture off the internet. It wasn’t quite this one, but it looked a lot like it.

Cheap compost bin with a wire frame and tarpaulin sides

This was about the size of a household wheelie bin. It had a flap in the side stuck on with Velcro so you could open it for access to compost at the bottom. We chose something as large as possible for the price as we had finally gotten a place with a decent garden.

This wasn’t bad and we used it for almost 2 years. It was cheap and with a closed bottom it could go anywhere. Unfortunately we found that things didn’t decompose particularly quickly (no access to organisms and a pain to turn). The sides were a bit flimsy and it was impossible to move when even a quarter full. Also the velcro on the flap became clogged and then it wouldn’t close so it leaked goo constantly.

Rotating compost barrel

This is a barrel mounted on a stand that you can rotate to easily aerate it. They’re expensive. So for half the price of the smallest, cheapest one I made 3 from black bins. There are plenty of good youtube videos on how to make a proper one on a stand, but I didn’t have the patience or the space. Mine are literally black bins with lids that can be tightly sealed that I’ve drilled 2 rings of holes in. I also made a board with wheels so that I could put the bin on top of it and rotate it, but then decided that it was easier just to push it around with a wellied foot. I’ve had these for about 6 months so far and I absolutely love them. They’re easy to make. Turning the compost is very easy. If you roll it on the grass the leachate (brown nutrient filled water that leaks out of the hole) fertilises the grass. Each one is light enough to be taken around the garden to collect waste and small enough to be tucked into a corner when not in use.

Sounds perfect. The only problem is – I bought something plastic and new. I am bad.

Anyway…the compost bins hold the waste in the summer when I can’t hole compost. Once I have bare earth I start hole composting again. With perennial plants I haven’t dug close to their roots in hole composting, so in the spring I use the compost that is made in bin composting to mulch around them to provide nutrients.

Please please please do give composting in some form a go – even if you dig just one hole! It’s better in the garden than landfill or being collected for processing. It’s a free, natural way to fertilise your garden. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for your plants.

Composting tea bags – a plastic problem

Short version:

The bag that tea comes in for your morning brew will more likely than not contain plastic. Be wary of claims like ‘all plant based material’ as A-level kids often make plastic from potatoes as a Chemistry practical. This has actually become a sneaky post on looking at the little choices we make everyday that affect the environment. Hopefully this can help you look at what small changes are possible without feeling like you have to sacrifice too much.

I originally started writing about composting but then I started to ponder the plastic in tea bags. That’s the dangers of taking a tea break! Most tea bags are made from biodegradable materials but in order to make them heat sealable there needs to be some plastic in there. Don’t be fooled by the claim that a tea bag is completely made from plant-based material. That’s sometimes the marketing department being a little sneaky. You can make plastics out of plant material. It does break down – eventually. The problem is that biodegradable plastic could be worse for the soil (source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718327219).

We compost tea bags. What we should do is remove the tea out of the bags for composting and put the actual bag into the bin, but if I’m 100% honest I’d have to admit that I sling in the tea bags just as they are about 95% of the time. I just can’t be bothered. Yes, they have little bit of plastic in them, but I don’t know if that’s going to do the soil, the plants or our health much harm. I use plastic pots to grow things in. I use wire supports that are coated in plastic and ties that have plastic. There will be some plastic residue in my soil anyway. I’ve found tiny bits of plastic chopped up in shop bought compost before. These are all macro plastics and not very damaging. Apparently, it’s the micro (1mm = 1000micrometres) and nano (1mm = 1000,000 nanometres) plastics that are more harmful. They harbour pathogens which can harm soil and plant health and these micro and nano plastics are the ones that get into the waterways when washed out of the soil. Looking into this I’ve found much more worrying things. Lots of developing countries recycle municipal waste into soil fertiliser. An admirable thing in a way, but with the large amount of plastic clothing (anything that is poly-something is a plastic) being washed, there is a large amount of microplastics ending up going through the pipes. There’s also been an increase in the use of plastic in farming techniques e.g. using thin plastic to cover the ground as a mulch and residues of plastic can wash off them.

I guess when all is considered I think that the existence of micro plastics in my soil is probably inevitable. It’s better to compost the tea bags than not at all and the stress from worrying about it (yes – I’m an eternal worrier) would probably be more damaging than ingesting anything taken up by the plants. Besides if there are microplastics leaking out of the tea bag… then… er… it’s already gone into my tea. Apparently, the presence of worms in the soil help with the damaging effects of micro plastics. When it comes down to it, the tea bags are only a small percentage of what we compost anyway. The tea bags are better off in compost than landfill, where micro and nano plastics could still leak into waterways.

The mind then wandered on from tea bags and I started thinking about how small changes make a difference. Yes, I should remove the bag and compost just the tea, but I could direct my effort to do something that makes a bigger difference. Composting tea bags is better than not. Small things don’t have to be perfect solutions. For now. I think in order to change human behaviour to negate some of the damage done to our environment we have to accept that it CAN be done in baby steps. If you start to consider the environmental impact that every single decision has in our daily routines it becomes so overwhelming that it’s easy to just give up. Even putting on a clean pair of polyester socks every day has an impact. Any beauty or cosmetic products we use, including handwash has an impact. Transport is a big issue and it’s not possible or practical for everyone to cycle or walk to work. The environmental impact of food miles and packaging are complicated issues. Things grown locally may have a larger carbon footprint than something with more food miles when you consider the growing conditions required and farming methods. Reducing packaging on some goods may lead to an increase in food spoilage, which then means more energy is used to process more food. Of course, growing some of your own food removes both the food miles and packaging problem.

So, here are just a few ideas that maybe you could try if you don’t already:

  • Grow some stuff – even herbs on a windowsill.
  • Recycle and/or compost what you can.
  • Talk about it to other people. Many of us aren’t aware of how little things can make a difference.
  • Toothpaste tablets instead of a tube version. There are also tablets you can dissolve in a glass of water to make mouthwash too.
  • Soap in cardboard or paper rather than bottled shower gel. My skin has not liked that change at all so it may not be a permanent change for me. If anyone knows of a great moisturising soap, I’d be so grateful if you’d post it in the comments. Though for it to be a permanent solution I’m afraid I must consider the costs too.
  • Shampoo bars to reduce plastic. Unfortunately, the better value ones aren’t so good for my hair. I have found a place on the high street that does a refill service for a shampoo and shower gel that I could try.
  • Who gives a crap? is a company that sells recycled loo and kitchen roll that comes in paper and cardboard packaging.
  • Second-hand stuff like clothes, toys and DVDs are also good for the pocket. My little one’s school does a great used uniform sale to raise money for the PTA – maybe you could encourage something like that in your local school if they don’t already.
  • Mend clothes or upcycle rather than buying new.
  • When you do buy new, consider natural fibre clothing. This is another hard one for us as it tends to be more expensive. Cotton and bamboo are great options. Viscose is also made from cellulose. The processing of viscose may use a large of amount of energy or chemicals but when you wash your laundry, any fibres that escape into the water will not be plastic.
  • Look for food with minimal packaging. Waitrose packages their minced meats in shrink wrap. All other supermarkets that I’ve seen uses lots of harder plastic packaging. Again, this isn’t something we can afford to do often.
  • Eat less meat. I’m afraid this is where our family falls very short. We eat meat every day. We could start by having a meat free day once a week.
  • Carry a bottle of water so you don’t buy bottled water if you get thirsty when out and about.
  • Carry a plastic bag folded up in your wallet or handbag.
  • If we’re luck enough to have a second child, we will make an effort to use cloth diapers (we know where we can get some second-hand ones). No promises. If we have another child as difficult in the first 6 months as our current monkey, I doubt I’ll be making the best choices.
  • I’ve heard with interest about menstrual pants, but I’ve yet to take the plunge.
  • Take a reusable cup to a coffee shop. The impact coffee growing has on the environment is a whole other issue, but we are talking about small changes for now. Baby steps.

If you can think of any easy things that anyone/everyone can do (obviously the menstrual pants won’t apply to over half of the population) then please do make suggestions in the comments. Also if you have any great experiences with any of the above or any insights feel free to comment.

Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-50260687

https://ieep.eu/uploads/articles/attachments/3a12ecc3-7d09-4e41-b67c-b8350b5ae619/Plastic%20pollution%20in%20soil.pdf?v=63695425214

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718327219

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/mar/23/food.ethicalliving

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/plastic-packaging-food-waste-global-warming-carbon-footprint-a8968541.html

Pumpkin Carving

Short version:

I like to carve pumpkins. You can get different shades if you don’t go all the way through. The deeper you go the lighter the tone will be. I used a Thai fruit and vegetable carving knife. ‘Carving’ pumpkins are usually bland and watery.

Every year I get really excited about carving a pumpkin for Halloween. I’m afraid I can’t grow a pumpkin for carving. Not because they don’t grow – but if I go through the effort of growing a pumpkin then I am blimmin’ well going to eat it…. All. That’s the problem. If you carve a pumpkin you will be sacrificing a shell of at least 1cm thick in order to maintain structural integrity. I just can’t bear to do it. Pumpkins in the shops cost around £1 so it’s a no brainer. They are also not grown for taste, though I put this to the test almost every year.  

Little one chooses the theme. This year she wanted PJ Masks. We negotiated it down to Catboy. This is my step by step:

Before you start carving decide which bit will be the darkest and which will be the lightest. It is the opposite of shading with a pencil. The lighter you want something to be, the deeper you need to carve. This was my plan:

  • Pupils and the inside of his ears to be the darkest – leave the skin on.
  • Whites of his eyes and teeth to be the brightest – cut out completely.
  • Stripes are the lighter than the main material – cut deep without breaking through.
  • Right arm needs to stand out from the rest of the body – both edges of the arm to be deeper to make them lighter .
  • Smallest finger on both hands need to look like they are was behind the others – second to last finger (which looks like it is in front) needs to have a deep cut at the top edge to appear lighter.

This morning I looked again and a cat had pooed in the bunny head pumpkin. *sigh.

So post Halloween you can fill the pumpkin with soil and plant something in it. You can then bury the whole pumpkin in the garden and the breakdown of the pumpkin will add nutrients to the soil around the new plant. The best kind of seeds for this is something that needs stratification – a period of cold before it will germinate. Planting the seed straight after Halloween (in the Northern hemisphere) means that the seed will get a period of cold before germination and the pumpkin will get time to breakdown in the soil before the seed germinates. A perfect candidate would be something like Caucasian spinach, wild garlic seeds or nuts like hazelnut and walnut. Pears, apples, cherries and peaches all need a period of cold but you might not like the variety that grows. The plant that grows may not provide fruit that tastes like the fruit the seed/stone came from. Also if the fruit was shop bought it may have grown under different conditions to the ones you have in your garden. You can read more about why the fruit can be different in ‘Pollination, fertilisation and variation’

Here are a few from previous years:

Yes, they take a long time and no, I’m not sure why I enjoy it so much. It’s probably because I’m trying to avoid doing something else. Yesterday it was either ‘Catboy’ or saw 0.5cm off the bathroom door that had swollen too much to shut and replace the lock. I did that today and now my arms and shoulders hate me.

Raspberries

Short version:

Planting bare root canes in the winter is the most cost-effective way to grow raspberries that can be tastier than shop bought. These perennials need full sun, ericaceous soil and preferably rainwater. It is worth researching varieties for taste and hardiness for your area. Summer and autumn fruiting raspberries differ in when they fruit and also whether they fruit on 1 or 2 year old wood. By growing both you can have a supply of raspberries from June to October.

October is a great time to talk about raspberries. If you are growing an autumn variety, you could be harvesting the last few morsels towards the end of this month. Then, at the opposite end of the cycle, late October is a great time to buy bare rooted raspberries.

Growing conditions

Late autumn through to winter is when it’s easy to get hold of bare root plants. These are basically when the plants are dormant and it’s easy to send the bare roots wrapped in plastic through the post. This means cheap delivery costs and cheap plants. The bare roots then have time to establish and get settled in before growth begins in spring.

When choosing a site bear in mind that they are perennial, and you want them to be somewhere they can be happy for years to come. Mine are only 3 years old and year on year they have provided increasing yields as they have settled into their spots. They need full sun and they prefer ericaceous soil – which means acidic. My soil is all alkaline clay. I could amend the soil but honestly, I don’t have the time or patience. So, mine started in pots with shop bought ericaceous compost. If you pick a container suitable variety then growing in pots of ericaceous soil is a nice easy permanent solution. For me, I don’t like the extra watering that comes with pots. I then always feel sorry for the pot plants and end up on the hunt for increasingly large pots for a yearly rehome.

My permanent solution was a raised bed just for the ericaceous plants. I put loads of kitchen green scraps at the bottom, covered it with cardboard and let that decompose for a few months before I put the plants in and added a load of shop bought ericaceous compost. The roots have access to the soil underneath, which is of course my rubbish alkaline clay but at least it means the plant is much less likely to dry out. Also, I put them here because this roof drains water all the way along this side so all the water from this whole roof runs down into here. This is important especially in summer because you don’t want to water these with the hose if you can avoid it. Tap water tends to be alkaline, whereas rainwater is generally neutral or slightly acidic because of its contact in the sky with carbon dioxide. A rain barrel is a good way to get rainwater.

Pollination

Raspberries are generally self-fertile.

Propagation

Raspberries propagate by underground runners. This means that plants are likely to pop up in unlikely places. Because I have packed the raspberries in far too tightly, I have no idea which is the parent plant, so I have no idea what variety these are. These baby plants can just be removed to ensure that existing plants have enough space, or you could let them grow and cut them away from the parent plant when they have their own roots and plant them somewhere else for a new raspberry patch.  

Maintenance

Yes, I know that you should prune and thin in order to ensure better yields and a heathy flow of air and to stop the plant from shading itself. I would just like to be allowed to do it reluctantly. I don’t like killing a potential source of food. It’s also work and I’m lazy.

Raspberries are what I would consider complicated in their pruning. I grow both summer and autumn raspberries so that I have them available for a longer season. The problem is summer and autumn raspberries have different pruning requirements.

Summer fruiting raspberries fruit on what are called floricanes (something that is simple with blackberries). These are canes that grew the previous year – so these raspberries grow on 2 year old wood. This means that when you prune in autumn you should only remove the canes that have already fruited. If you prune the wrong canes then you might not have any, or very few, raspberries the next year.

Autumn fruiting raspberries will fruit on primocanes, or canes that have grown that year – 1 year old wood. This means that after all the raspberries have been harvested you can chop all the canes away. Therefore, for simplicity in pruning autumn fruiting varieties are a good bet.

Just to complicate autumn fruiting a little bit – you can do something called double cropping with autumn raspberries. If you leave some green growth for the next year you can get a small crop of early raspberries on these canes and then a bigger crop in the autumn when the new canes have grown.

As the canes grow you might find you need to provide a support. I just use bamboo canes to stop them falling over and/or getting in the way.

When the berries start to ripen, if you find the birds getting there first then you can cover all your bushes with netting. We have far too many neighbourhood cats for that to be a problem. I’m not convinced that that is a good thing.  

The thing we do get often is little holes in the leaves from caterpillars in the summer. As we tend to have a steady trickle (not quite enough to be called a stream…yet) of raspberries from about early June to end of October it’s easy to have a quick check of leaves as we pick. It’s then easy to remove any pests you might see like caterpillars or the occasional shield bug. We don’t spray as it’s bad for the food chain and the little one can eat straight off the bushes.

Taste and harvest

Firstly home-grown berries taste so much better than they do in the shops. For shipping and storing purposes store bought fruit is picked when it’s less than ripe. When things ripen off the bush they just aren’t as sweet or flavourful. When you grow it, you can literally pick it off the bush when it’s perfectly ripe and just eat it. Because we don’t use pesticides or fertilisers that’s exactly what we do. When my mum comes to visit I can see her cringing as we do it.

Of course, whilst it is true that home grown can taste much better than shop bought, if you buy a rubbish tasting variety then it’s always going to be rubbish tasting. As it is going to be a plant that is with you for a while you might want to research ones that will suit your taste. I’ve discovered that tart or acidic are basically euphemisms for sour. No matter how long we left our Glen Ample raspberries to ripen, they were still too sour to be eaten straight off the bush.

That’s not what I look for in a raspberry. I want something little missy monkey can just help herself to. She’s been good at learning what is ripe. Raspberries are a good one for that. They are sour when unripe but not harmful. They also pull away very easily when ripe so there is a very easy physical indication of when to pick. Glen Ample just confused her completely. After trying those she stopped eating raspberries for a week. Once I figured out the issue, I just ripped out the bush. At least it helped with my overcrowding issue.

When researching varieties for taste, it is worth checking for summer or autumn fruiting and how hardy it is for your area. Summer fruiting ones can fruit from June. Autumn fruiting doesn’t start till late summer and can continue till the end of October.

I can only tell you what I know about my own varieties. All are happy to live outside, in full sun, sheltered from winds in an ericaceous bed:

Unfortunately now we are becoming raspberry snobs. Little one won’t eat the shop bought ones and whilst I try not to let a four year old dictate shopping decisions, I’m afraid I have to agree. They just aren’t as tasty or sweet. Also where’s the fun in picking up a punnet in the supermarket? Garden foraging is much more satisfying.

If anyone has a variety that they would like to recommend or have any growing tips, please feel free to comment… Or if you’re just bored…

Cucamelons

Short version:

These are just hilarious little lemony cucumbers. You won’t get an amazing amount of food from these but they’re fun to grow, especially for little people.

These are also called, mouse melons, Mexican sour cucumber, with a botanical name of melothria scabra, but they are still a member of the Cucurbitaceae family like squash, cucumbers, melons and loofahs.

Growing

Sow a seed or two in single pots indoors in April/May.

You get very delicate thin vines. Because they are so thin you can get away with a couple growing together.

Plant out when all danger of frost has passed in the sunniest spot possible.

You do need to provide something for them to climb up. They grab on with these little tendrils that wind tightly round anything they can including its own vine and others nearby.

You’ll see tiny yellow flowers of the male or female persuasion but I’ve never had a problem with the pollination of these, unlike the full sized squashes (which sometimes need hand pollinating). They produce an abundance of male and female flowers simultaneously so there is always plenty of opportunity for insects to do their thing.

Eating

Harvesting can start in July/August.

And you can see it’s still limping along mid October.

They taste like lemony cucumbers. They’re great for little hands to pick and eat straight off the vine (though be aware it might be a choking hazard for anyone who still needs their grapes cutting in half). When we’ve grown enough to survive little one’s garden grazing, we’ve put them in salads, in Pimms, they go really well in gin and tonic and they’re a great snack box item when on the go.

I don’t think the plants did particularly well this year. It wasn’t as sunny this summer as last year and though these spots get the best sun in the garden, the soil here isn’t that fertile and they are competing with the grass. Also, my small child has a ‘provide a wide berth’ approach to her swinging so I can’t be too precious about any plants grown up the legs. I’m afraid I have no self control. I can’t stop myself from growing food up any available structure.

Seed saving

Often with cucurbits you need to worry about varieties cross pollinating as all the squashes in the family cucurbita pepo (pumpkins, courgettes, spaghetti squash, acorn, hubbard, patty pan) can pollinate each other. I haven’t seen any varieties of the cucamelon so it may just be one type in the species. This means that the flowers will always be pollinated by similar genetic material so I suspect that the seeds will grow plants similar to the parents. I’ve seen evidence of this when they have self-seeded in the past and the plants that have grown have produced cucamelons the same as their parent plants. They have only self-seeded 2 out of the 5 years that I’ve grown them so that’s not a reliable method of propagation. This I think I’ll try and save some seeds and I’ll let you know how successful they might be next year.

Pests

In the 5 years that I’ve grown them they only seem to be bothered by shield bugs – southern green shield bugs particularly. These little buggers stick their proboscis into the flesh of the cucamelon, which results in tiny bumps on the melon surface. They don’t destroy the fruit, so I’m usually satisfied to just flick them off when I see them.

Grown for giggles

This doesn’t fit the profile of my usual plants. It’s not perennial, it’s not a trigger happy self seeder, you don’t get a huge crop per plant and they taste fine but it’s not a taste bud revelation. I do love them though because they’re fun, I haven’t seen them sold in shops and the plants are so thin and wirey there’s always somewhere to squeeze in a plant or two. They take up so little space in the ground but grow up nice and tall. They just make a nice little snack in the garden, salad filler and are a bit of a mind bender for those who assume it’s a watermelon when posted in photos with cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes

Short version: Grow ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes for large harvests of orange, very sweet and tasty round yumminess. They need sun and plenty of water.

Bad Science

My first exposure to growing tomatoes was in Lancashire with my mum and my sister. The tomatoes grew big but went straight from green to rotten, bypassing anything edible. Alternatively, they stayed green. As winter came, we’d wrap the tomatoes left on the withered plant with tissue paper and put them in the airing cupboard or next to bananas to ripen. They still didn’t taste particularly great even when they’d gained some colour.

20 years on, living in London, I tried again. The tomatoes, though they ripened, were inferior to ‘on the vine’ shop bought tomatoes. I tried growing some unusual tomatoes like a stripy variety called ‘Tigerilla’. They were interesting and ripened fine but were riddled with bug holes and again tasted no better than fancier shop bought.

I’ve experimented with a couple of tomatoes, some grown from seed and some from shop bought plants. I have concluded that the best tomatoes to grow for our outdoor conditions in London are cherry tomatoes, of which ‘Sungold’ are the most worthwhile. This has been tested in 3 different London locations in both soil and in pots.

It’s hard to approach this scientifically of course because none of this is a fair test.

You can’t compare tomatoes grown in different years as the weather isn’t consistent year to year. 2018 had amazing sun in June and July and with sufficient irrigation – plants went wild. 2019 has only had about 4 days that were as hot in comparison.

You can also not compare the success of growing food in London to Lancashire (which is about 200 miles north). In addition to the actual latitude of the gardens, there is also the matter of the difference between the greener, more spaced out cooler suburbs and the concrete jungle that retains heat and is generally a degree warmer. The city also benefits from the better bee populations, which benefit from the larger variety of plants packed into a smaller area.

You also cannot compare tomatoes grown 20 years ago to tomatoes grown now. There is no doubt in my mind the climate change has caused an increase in temperature. This has helped my veggie growing but of course we’ll all have drowned when our island is flooded in a couple of decades, as the temperature continues to increase, the polar ice caps melt, and the sea levels rise….er…

Anyway… not a fair test. It’s all bad science – but I happily recommend Sun gold cherry tomatoes!

Why cherry tomatoes?

  • I’ve found that larger tomatoes take much longer to ripen. With cherry tomatoes, once they begin to ripen, you’ll find that every day there’ll be a few more that are ready for picking. This means that with a couple of plants you can pick a meal’s worth of tomatoes every couple of days (or almost every day in mid-summer). The quicker ripening of smaller tomatoes means that the pests have a smaller window of opportunity to get there before you.
  • With cherry tomatoes, as the fruit are smaller, you will get a much larger number of tomatoes per plant. This means that a bug infested tomato or two is a smaller percentage of your total crop.
  • With cherry tomatoes, a few ripening every day, you get a longer season to eat them and less of a glut. So, whilst you won’t get the opportunity to stockpile sauce or chutneys (not that I could be bother to do that anyway) you’ll get value for money with not having to buy tomatoes from the shop all summer.
  • I’m lazy. Cherry tomatoes don’t need chopping up to put into a salad. You also don’t get any overly large tomatoes that you might only eat half of.

Why Sungold?

Having not tasted all the tomato varieties that have existed… ever… in all the world, I couldn’t say this is the ultimate best, but I certainly can’t fault it. It does very well in our climes, in the soil or in pots (you do need a massive pot that you keep well-watered in hot weather – if you want lots of tomatoes over a long period), it’s prolific and not just sweet, but also very very tasty, it’s an interesting orange variety and it’s very forgiving if you pick it a bit early (it tastes good, just not as sweet) or a bit late (they can stay on the vine for a while without rotting).

Growing Conditions

The truly lazy way is to buy a tomato plant. They aren’t too pricey and these days there are even grafted plants available. Grafted plants mean strong roots and hardier plants with tasty fruit grafted on the top half.

However, for the price of a single plant you could buy a whole packet of seeds. Sow seeds in March/April in pots indoors. I always sow individual seeds in large pots (often pot noodle pots or litre juice/milk cartons) as I cannot bear to pinch out the weaker seedlings. If you use large pots, you can keep them indoors for a little longer to give them a better start. They can be hardened off and planted out when you’re completely sure that there will be no more frost.

Tomatoes do best in full sun with soil that never gets dry or waterlogged. If the tomatoes have sporadic watering it can lead to the fruit splitting or end rot.

Pollination

In any of the areas of London that I have tried growing tomatoes I have never had to worry about hand pollinating them. I have read that tomatoes are both wind-pollinated and insect pollinated so I’m not sure how much difference the good London bee populations make. They also don’t need another plant to set fruit. In a greenhouse, however, with neither wind nor insects the flowers may drop off and not set fruit. I’ve also read that bumble bees are the best pollinators of tomatoes as their ‘buzz’ shakes the flowers enough to pollinate them. This can be replicated by vibrating the plant. Apparently, an electric toothbrush is a good tool for this. Anyway, the point is that tomatoes are self-pollinating. This means that the seeds in the fruit will grow into plants that will then grow the same fruit as the parent plant. So, seeds can be collected for the next year. Even better, sometimes you’ll find that, in your tomato bed from the previous year, you’ll have lots of little seedlings that can be transplanted to a new site. It is wise to consider crop rotation to avoid a build of pests and diseases and depleting the soil of certain nutrients.

Harvesting

The best thing about growing your own is that you can pick the tomatoes when they are fully ripe. Shop bought is often picked when not quite ripe, to prolong travel life and shelf life. This means that the flavour often suffers. You can also use your plants a bit like a larder. If you don’t feel like tomatoes for a meal, leave them on the vine to get sweeter. My little one loves just going into the garden for a forage or a graze. She’s picked and eaten enough cherry tomatoes to be able to tell if they’re ripe and it increases her vegetable intake with no effort by me. She’ll either come back into the house satisfied or carrying a bowl of ‘salad’ which comprises of mostly tomatoes, mint leaves and nasturtium flowers. Sometimes there’s handfuls of rosemary and lavender in there. She’s still hoping to con daddy into eating one of her salads one day.

My favourite thing about tomatoes is the weird little ‘elbow’ you get on the stalk, with some varieties, which snaps easily when the fruit is ripe. It does occur in Sungold and it is so satisfying to snap the tomatoes off, not to mention easier to harvest, as secateurs are not required.  

What cute little elbows!!!!

Caucasian spinach

Short version:

Mild tasting, spinach like, shoots and leaves that climb well, grow in shade, are perennial and can be grown from seed.

I can’t believe this vegetable, officially called Hablitzia tamnoides, exists. It seems to go against everything gardeners think of when they compare required effort and sun with the ability to produce food.

There is so much to love:

Perennial

This is a perennial, so it will grow back year after year once it is established. Over a cold winter it will look like it has disappeared forever, never to return, but this is a hardy plant. The shoots will make a reappearance in late winter / early spring. This means that once established it makes a great filler of the hungry gap. The shoots can be harvested a couple of times before you leave it to grow in the spring.

Cold and shade

It prefers shade. It can tolerate half a day of sun. This feels rather unnatural, as we often talk about edibles needing a MINIMUM amount of sun. Pretty much every garden, especially those in the city with its large buildings, have some areas of deep shade. When you have a small garden this just feels like a waste. It’s not where you want to put your garden furniture as it’s not fun sitting OUT OF the sun. Almost nothing thrives. It’s a good place for a compost patch or a wormery but my the deepest shade is right next to my back door. The compost bin would live there if I was willing to share my kitchen with the clouds of fruit flies that have taken up residence in the compost. I have a constant urge to grow food in every available space and this and the hostas are my shade loving perennial saviours.

So we have 3 plants. One is in the deepest darkest shadiest part of the garden where it grows well with the hostas and wild garlic. One is under a fig tree. This was an error on my part that worked out OK. I didn’t realise how quickly and how large the fig tree would grow, but the Caucasian spinach does well scrambling up the branches in the shade.

Easily grown from seed

The seeds need a period of cold (stratification) before they’ll sprout. This sounds complicated, but all you need to do is sow BEFORE winter in a pot and just leave it outside to do its thing. If you sow in a pot, you can be sure of what you are growing before you place it in situ. I think bindweed can look a little similar.

Though bindweed has rather attractive flowers, I would advise you to eradicate it as soon as you see it. Once it takes hold it can be impossible to get rid of. It is also not edible.

The beauty of growing from seeds means that it’s easy to transport, save for another year and give to friends.

Climbing

As I said, with the small garden, there is an urge to be able to use up every little bit of space. So, not only can you eat the early shoots, you can eat the leaves as it turns into a vine. If given something to climb, it will happily scramble up without any need to maintain or tie up. This is where climbers or tall plants are the most efficient. With the Caucasian spinach you get excellent production food per square foot of earth.

By early June there wass a twining messy clump of heart shaped leaves. Here it is has reached around 1.5m but could reportedly grow to twice that if given something that tall to climb. It got to the top of the frame at 2m this year.

Taste and texture

So after all it’s ease of growing it wouldn’t be worth it if it tasted rubbish. Caucasian spinach tastes wonderfully inoffensive. It is a green you can use lots of. It’s not sour like sorrel. It’s not bitter like many perennial greens. It’s just basically milder tasting than spinach even, and has the advantage that it doesn’t make your teeth feel furry the way that actual spinach does.

The young leaves feel thinner and not as succulent as spinach can be though.

The leaves can be used wherever spinach is used. They boil fine, fry fine, can be used to bulk out the vegetables in sauces and can be eaten raw in salads.

Soil

It prefers alkaline or neutral soil which is perfect for my garden. This may not be a bonus if you have a garden full of acidic soil. However, there are some things that actually REQUIRE acidic soil like blueberries, raspberries, kiwis and plenty of things that won’t mind acidic soil. Alternatively you can add lime to the soil, but that is something I would be far too lazy to do. An easier option would be to grow in a pot that you keep under alkaline conditions (though this may still involve adding lime).

So my third plant is in a very large pot full of compost. It’s large enough to accommodate the roots and I keep it well watered enough so it doesn’t dry out. It is doing terribly. I suspect it is a combination of the acidic compost (I did a soil test of the compost I use) and because it gets better sun than the other two plants.

I suspect soil pH is quite an important factor, but I’d have to wait till next year when I’ll move the potted one into more shade in order to draw a full conclusion.

Pests

It seems to be fairly resistant to the usual suspects in my garden.

So far the Caucasian spinach has survived the pigeons, the caterpillars, the aphids, the shield bugs. My biggest problem in the garden tends to be powdery mildew – especially with the brassicas. So any leafy green that is not susceptible to powdery mildew gets bonus points.

The only problem that I’ve had with Caucasian spinach is leaf miners. The little grubs live safely nestled between the layers of the leaf. If you were to look at the leaf from both sides you’d not be able to see the grub. Traditional pesticides wouldn’t help you here. Luckily I don’t use pesticides so it’s not something that has vexed me. Regular harvesting means that I’m often scrutinising the leaves. This means that as I see any leaves with signs of leaf miner I just pull the leaves off and bin them in food recycling. This removes the pest from the local environment so they can’t spread.

There are many things to love about this plant. I’ve only been growing it a couple of years so I’m interested to see how it’ll get on in the future and how long it will continue to survive happily without my intervention. I basically want more food with no more effort.

Me? Lazy? Totally!

My Beautiful Neighbourhood

Short version:

Photos of things in gardens and on the streets in my local area that show what grows well in urban gardens, how food can be incorporated into the front garden, how structures can be used and a couple of great ideas for making the most of your space.

E.g. It’s bananas that there is a banana tree here. I’ve not seen fruit on this tree but even it’s existence just makes me incredibly happy.

So… we moved to Streatham for a few reasons:

  • It was further out of London and less polluted. This is a great link if you want live information on pollutants in your local area, right down to the individual streets. https://www.londonair.org.uk/LondonAir/nowcast.aspx
  • We got much more house for the money.
  • We could actually afford a garden. A real one. That has soil.
  • Schools. Turns out a lot of the people who have moved to our area of Streatham have also moved for the schools.

What I didn’t realise until after we moved was how friendly the neighbourhood would be. We actually know, as in have real conversations, with people who live on our road. There’s even a Whatsapp group. I’ve even met people in 3 of the houses in the road parallel. In my 20 years of London living, I never knew such a thing was possible.

As well as the friendly natives, I absolutely love some of the gardens that I’ve seen. So today I’d like to share some of these wonderful things.

If anyone recognises any of these pictures as their property and you’d rather not have the photo up – please do let me know and I’ll take it down.

I love it when people use all the space they can, even in the walls. In the photos below, the dividing walls have planters built in:

I love it when people don’t resign themselves to flora-less gardens when they don’t have bare earth:

I’ve also seen some very clever planters:

Not only are there planters in the gardens but sometimes in Streatham you see planters on pavements with signs saying you can help yourself to the herbs. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of those planters, but I love that these are planters just on the streets:

Sometimes things make it into the streets by themselves. I make a mental note of plants like these. If they seed themselves happily in cracks, then there’s no reason why I wouldn’t also be able to grow them in my own garden.

Sometimes they just spill onto the streets from the gardens.

Here are some more big bushes/trees. I am often surprised by how big a tree you can actually fit in London gardens if it’s slow growing enough and not too close to the building:

Those trees, being so large, would have taken many years to establish. There are some shorter term ways to utilise the vertical space:

There’s also ways to make the most of any space lower down:

You can also incorporate edibles into hedging:

Of course my favourite option is to go all out and just grow edibles in the front garden.

These photos (so far) are all just things you can see from the road so I love to imagine that there’s a plethora of BACK gardens in the area that hide edible treasures and ingenious gardening ideas. Of course I couldn’t get photos without trespassing and probably jail time. I don’t think the defence ‘I’m just really really nosy’ would stand up in court. However… there was a 5th birthday party in a centre that had a fantastic vegetable patch in the back that excited me much more than the bouncy castle!

Finally, just to show that I don’t have a one track mind and can also appreciate a good wild flower meadow:

Actually… I think I might be lying. I love this wild flower meadow because it’s great for bees…and well…. bees are important for anyone who wants to grow their own food. Turns out I really do just have a one track mind. It’s not dirty, but it does think about the composition of dirt quite a bit.