Turkish rocket

Short version:

A hardy, perennial, shade tolerant, self-seeding vegetable with a long taproot that can be eaten all year round. The best bit to eat though are the flowering shoots.

I have no idea why it is called Turkish rocket (latin name – Bunias orientalis) as it is nothing like what people typically think of as rocket (Eruca vesicaria subsp. Sativa) or wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia). All three of those rockets are, however, all part of the Brassica family. Bunias doesn’t look like the other 2 rockets and it doesn’t taste like them either.

How to grow

They can easily be grown from seed. As far as I know seeds are only available online but be careful and make sure you are buying Bunias orientalis because I’ve seen seeds marketed as Turkish rocket that look like they are just rocket. Turkish rocket can be slow to germinate so you do need to be a bit patient. I’d recommend starting them in pots indoors as they can look quite a bit like dandelion seedlings at the start with a similar rosette of leaves. This also gives you time to decide on a permanent patch.

The plants like a bit of sun but they do very well in quite a bit of shade. Our Turkish rocket patch is by the apple tree next to a tall fence. In the summer it sits in the dappled shade of the little apple tree in the morning and the shade of the fence most of the afternoon but in the winter I don’t think the low sun shines on it at all. They don’t do particularly well in pots because they have a deep taproot. However, they do very well in just about any type of soil. They have thrived in our heavy clay. This deep taproot can reach down many feet to get nutrients and water. This means it does very well in drought. This also means you need to choose your patch wisely because once it establishes itself it becomes quite hard to dig up. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I have read that if any of the root is left behind, the plant will return. It can also self seed merrily, but we’ve not really left any of the flowers.

Most of the leaves are in a rosette around the base. The flower stalks can extend up to around 80 cm tall. If left to flower you get yellow flowers with the four petals typical of brassicas.

The plant is very hardy and can survive a very cold winter and come back fine the next year. I found with the mild winter we had last year we still had the rosette of leaves at the base.

How to harvest

The leaves and the flower shoots are edible. Leaves are available all year round. I don’t usually harvest any over the winter as it doesn’t seem to have many leaves, whilst my perennial kales and purple tree collard do very well over winter. The flower shoots start in late spring (making it a good edible for the hungry gap) and can continue in flushes through the summer. If you don’t want it to self seed, it’s no chore to eat all of the flower shoots. They are best when the buds are still closed.

How to eat

I wouldn’t recommend eating the leaves raw. They can be a bit bitter especially in the height of summer. To combat the bitterness, you can blanche with some salty hot water, then drain and discard that water. Then cook again in any manner of choosing, e.g. frying in a bit of oil, boiling, adding to sauces or stews.

The flower shoots are the best bit and can be eaten like purple sprouting broccoli. They taste a little bit like a cross between purple sprouting broccoli and mustard greens. The texture doesn’t quite have the same bite as purple sprouting broccoli. It is more like the stems of the Chinese vegetable choi sum.

Problems

I only added this bit because one of the best things about this plant is that I have never seen any pests on it. It seems to be untroubled by my usual brassica diseases like powdery mildew. It grows like a weed and doesn’t need any tending at all. It’s true that I have only had it for 2 1/2 years but in that time after the original sowing and then planting out all I’ve done is harvest and eat.

Wild Rocket

Short version:

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

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

Taste

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

Growing

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

Harvesting

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

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

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

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!

Globe Artichokes

Short version:

Large perennial grown for its flower buds. Choose a variety that is hardy for your conditions. Can be grown from seed or easily propagated from suckers. Preparation and cooking can be easy and eating, leisurely.

It’s probably only when you see the mature flower of an artichoke that you can see the connection to thistle flowers. Mine never get that far because we love them – and I do me we. I have never failed to get my fussy 3 year old to eat when serving artichoke. If you have very little space in the garden, then artichokes may not be for you. They do take up a substantial amount of space for the amount of food they provide (a bit like pumpkins). They block the light out at ground level so much so that I don’t usually have to weed around them.  They do make a nice front garden statement though if you want something big and showy.

Growing artichokes

Seeds

One of the cheapest ways to start artichokes is to sow seeds. Seeds are easy to get hold of from retailers. The variety I see most often is Green Globe, popular for being hardy, reliable and prolific. I, therefore, figured it would be the easiest to grow. I planted 3 seeds and 2 grew. I’m sure experts could tell you what specific mix of compost, temperature and light conditions you need to ensure germination but my approach to all seeds is chuck them into a pot of  whatever big bag of compost I happen to be working my way through, whack it in the porch, water it regularly and wait for it to grow as I’ve written in my ‘Sowing Seeds’ post.

Plug Plants

Tiny plug plant

If you only want one or two plants and don’t have the patience for seeds, then you can buy artichokes as plug plants, though one will probably cost more than a pack of seeds. I bought the variety Tavor which is supposed to be hardier than Green Globe and matures in the first year.

I sowed the Green Globe indoors in February and then bought the Tavor plug plant in July. Both provided their first crop the following May. To be honest I can’t tell the difference in taste between the two. Both have given us a wonderful crop for a couple of years now. They’ve also survived the winters fine, even the freezing one that seemed to break half of London’s water pipes.

Propagating artichokes

So seed was only ‘one of the cheapest ways’ because in fact the totally free way of growing an artichoke is knowing someone who is growing artichokes who want to give you their offsets!

See – when I have my way and half of the people in cities are growing their own food, imagine how easy it would be to ask someone on your road for a cutting of their perennials. Or in a barter system, do a ‘swapsies’.

Anyway… Artichokes, as they mature will start sending out suckers. These are little side plants that would grow into a new plant. Generally, it’s good practise to remove these so that they don’t end up competing with your established plant.

Growing conditions

Good sun is important and provide plenty of water during hot days. Yes, I’m sure there is plenty of information on how a soil rich in organic matter is best for your artichokes but the soil you have is the soil you have. Pretty much all of London (so I’ve read – I haven’t actually gone around testing samples) is clay. Mine is heavy clay and it would be too time consuming or expensive to amend it before I planted my artichokes. I have been slowly adding organic matter to the whole garden and will continue to over the next few years.

Harvesting Artichokes

This is the very small bud come after the side buds and probably won’t grow much

Size is supposed to be a deciding factor on when to harvest, but the size of your buds will depend on variety and whether it’s the main bud or a side bud. Therefore, I’d say when the bud looks like it’s beginning to open it needs to be harvested. If the plant isn’t watered enough the bud will try and open prematurely and it will be tougher. I have found that my plants stay quite tight budded for a good couple of weeks and the first year I found myself harvesting them far too early for fear that I would leave it too late. That’s not a problem though as I found in these cases that the ‘choke’ wasn’t so spikey and was actually edible. You will get one big main bud and then slightly smaller side buds. I have also found that there can be some even smaller buds that appear a little while after.

The main bud in the centre is ready for harvest. The secondary ones will not grow quite as big and will be mature about 2 weeks later.

To harvest, cut the stem a few inches below the base of the bud with a sharp knife or secateurs.

Preparing Artichokes

It doesn’t need to be complicated.

This is what I was told:

  • Wash thoroughly
  • Cut the stem from the base of the artichoke
  • Peel the stem
  • Remove the first layer or two of leathery scales
  • Remove the top inch of the bud with a knife
  • Using a pair of scissors cut the top of each petal to remove the thorn
  • Boil in a large pan of water with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon to avoid discolouration

These are the only necessary steps.

  • Cut the stem from the base which includes the 5 smallest petals (the first layer)
  • Wash thoroughly
  • Boil in a pan of water for around 20 mins or until a leaf comes away easily when you pull on it.

Seriously, the rest is just minutiae. If you think the rest of the artichoke is a faff then you really won’t think the stem is worth it. If you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of eating out of the plant, then you can peel the stem and add it halfway through cooking – but it is only the very central core that isn’t fibrous. How many petals you remove is preference, but you can just cook them and try and eat them. The worst that’ll happen is you’ve left a couple of tough leaves that don’t have anything worth eating on them. Removing the top inch of the bud and the tips of the leaves is to remove the thorn but I’ve found that with most artichokes the thorn isn’t too sharp and/or the thorn becomes soft in the cooking and isn’t an issue. The last bit with the lemon and salt – sometimes I can’t find any lemon (not even bottled kind) in the fridge, or in fact I’ve forgotten both lemon and salt and it’s fine. If your bud is covered in aphids then just soak the bud in salty water for 10 mins and then rinse, pulling back the petals a little to wash in the gaps.   

Eating Artichokes

So… this is where it’s fun/tedious depending on what kind of person you are.

Using a thumb and a fingertip(s), with your thumb on the inside of the curve pull off a petal. When you lift it to your mouth, the thumb will be on the bottom. Use your teeth to scrape off the ‘flesh’ in the base inside of the petal. Do this for all the large petals. The petals get smaller and thinner as you get to the centre. For the very thin petals you can bite off anything that isn’t too fibrous. You then reach the choke in the centre. This is spikey and not edible. Scrape it off with a spoon and you’ll be left with the heart. In our family our hearts get devoured by the 3 year old.

My 3 year old has her own way of eating it. Aficionados will note that she is putting the petal in her mouth upside down. It’s easier to eat the other way round and scrape the flesh away with your bottom teeth than your top. We pile petals that have cooled enough and that she can easily eat in front of her. Just FYI that isn’t all from one artichoke.

The heart tastes a bit like taro but the artichoke (all of the bits you eat) has a funny way of making everything you eat afterwards taste sweet. It’s quite fun eating different things in between eating the petals. Try a sip of wine straight after a petal. This is because something called cynarin in the artichokes inhibits your sweet receptors. As you stop eating the artichoke and eat or drink something else the cynarin is washed away and everything taste sweet.

So literally, artichokes will make your life taste sweeter, if only for a couple of seconds.

Peas and Beans

Short version:

As legumes they are a good crop to plant before brassicas in crop rotation. They can be sown generally March to July in successional sowings to provide a long and bountiful harvest. Depending on the variety they do well in part shade to full sun but with support can grow to around 6ft in order to reach extra sunlight. This height makes them an efficient use of space in small gardens.  

Legume family

Most of the legumes are pod producing plants that harbour nitrogen fixing bacteria in nodes in their roots. These bacteria convert nitrogen into nitrates, which is the form necessary for assimilation of nitrogen into plants. Nitrogen is a necessary component of protein molecules which, I assume, is why peas and beans are a good source of vegetable protein. It has been said that legumes are good for crop rotation due to these high levels of nitrates. However, most of the nitrogen will be in the plant structure so in order to benefit from this, after the plants have finished producing, they should be chopped down and buried back within the soil to decompose.

I am often enthusiastically recommending growing peas and beans to any poor soul who stumbles across my path. There are several reasons:

They’re productive and tasty

You need to pick varieties that you like, though the catch 22 is, how would you know if you like them until you’ve grown them and eaten them?

Please excuse the round courgette plonked on top. This is one day’s harvest from about 15 plants. At this peak time we were collecting this amount every other day.

Out of the beans I would recommend ones with edible pods, like runner beans and French beans. The long pods, especially runner beans, means that each pod provides a larger amount of food in the growing space and for your effort. I’ve grown a few varieties of runner beans and they generally taste the same so I would just say find a string less one and if unsure if a pod is ready, pick the pods early as opposed to late. Picked early they’re sweet and tender but you may not be getting as much food out of it as you potentially could have. Picked too late the pods are fibrous and the beans are floury, and therefore, worthless. I think there’s more of a variety in taste in French beans and I would recommend ‘Blue Lake.’ If anyone has any varieties (for any legumes) they’d recommend, feel free to drop them in the comments. Reviews are always appreciated.

As much as I like shelled peas, if you’re looking to get as much food, as easily as possible then sugar snap peas are the way forward. Mangetout are not bad for more food per pod, but they go very quickly from too small to too chubby with tasteless peas and fibrous shells. Sugar snaps still have tasty peas when the pods are ready to burst. The case may be a bit tough, but then they become no different to shelled peas.

If you want extra food out of your peas, the young shoots and leaves (the much paler green ones) are tasty in salads and stir fries.

They’re good for vertical gardening

You will get a decently long harvest from both beans and peas if you keep picking the pods. Once a plant has some fully developed seeds it’s happy to give up the ghost. They can also be planted in succession to provide food for longer, but I think this is something for people with a large garden or those that are well organised.

These sugar snap peas are not quite ready yet. You can see runner bean leaves all around as they were planted about a month after so that they could take over as the sugar snaps were dying. In reality the sugar snaps became over run by the runners very early on and were probably less productive because of it.

In a small garden you can grow vertical plants on all sides. This can cover unsightly fences or provide a privacy screen and means that you grow more food in a smaller space. I love that they have a small footprint and so take up little space. With their height, even if they start in part shade, they can always grow higher rapidly to make the best of their circumstances. So they also utilise garden space better. Runner beans can still do very well in part shade. Peas need full sun.

Runner beans and French beans will wind around a cane with little coaxing. Peas, however, have tightly curling tendrils and don’t do well with thick supports like trellises.

Pea and bean netting is very cheap and you can wrap this around some bamboo canes, giving you a much larger area of support and very thin strands for the tendrils to curl around.

They’re easy

They have nice big seeds that are easy to handle. You can sow them indoors in early spring. I suggest one or two seeds in individual pots or in loo roll tubes. You can sow them in situ in warmer weather. I still recommend in the pots though if you want to avoid the mice getting your seeds or slugs and snails devouring seedlings. They grow so fast and you don’t have to wait a long season for a harvest.

They have a very long sowing period. Check the back of your particular pack for instructions but most will fall somewhere between April and July. Generally peas need an earlier sowing than beans but if you’re a bit late with sowing you can always aim for pea shoots if you think the pods won’t mature before the cold weather hits.

They’re cheap

A large pack of seeds is very cheap, and they are so easy to grow that it is rarely worth buying plug plants. Each seed will provide a large plant that provides many pods. In addition, it is easy to harvest seeds from current plants for the following year. Peas and beans tend to self-pollinate and so tend to remain true to the parent plant. Of course, there can be variation within a variety. Here follows my anecdotal warning. Back in the early days of flat renting I had a small outdoor space. I grew mangetout and they were prolific and tasty. In the first year, there were a couple of shorter, less appetising looking pods that I figured wouldn’t make good eating and were best left to grow seeds. Those seeds were taken and grown the following year. Again, I only saved the most unworthy pods for seeds. Four years of growing the same mangetout from its seeds I wondered why on earth I was growing this mangetout. All the pods were short and stubby. Some of the pods only housed one pea! The plants didn’t last very long. They were pathetic. It was only after I’d thrown away all the plants and vowed never to bother with mangetout again that I realised that it could be because I had bred them that way. Maybe I had encouraged this trait of very small pods. I also didn’t know back then that you needed to keep picking in order to keep the plant producing. So, whilst it is possible to collect seeds you do need to question whether it’s worth the effort.   

Runner beans can be perennial in milder areas. I have left runner bean plants in the soil when I was too lazy busy to pull them out. I was surprised when the dead looking stems sprouted shoots and leaves the next spring. This gives an early harvest the following year for free!

These runner beans started sprouting leaves and flowers from old stems early April. In the bottom left you can see the old brown stems with little growth.

If you haven’t grown them before I hope this has inspired you to give it a go. You don’t need much space. The picture above was from an old place which was a front paved ‘yard’ with this north facing fence. Despite that you can see them encroaching on the bike shed on the right. I would also swear that freshly picked peas and beans taste so much better than the ones bought in shops…. and of course… there’s no packaging or food miles!

Sowing seeds

Short version:

My method for novices deterred by the perceived effort, cost or time taken to grow seeds, though I’m probably upsetting experts with my inability to follow instructions.

  1. Collect toilet roll tubes, tetra pack cartons and plastic tubs for free and environmentally friendly containers.
  2. Choose seeds wisely
  3. Fill with normal compost
  4. In the recommended month sow 1-8 seeds (depending on plant) in each container, picking a suitable container for each plant.
  5. Place on a windowsill / warm place and keep the compost damp.
  6. When planting out pop the whole toilet roll in the hole so you don’t disturb the roots. When planting Tetra Pak you can cut off the bottom and put the whole carton into the soil to provide a bit of protection from pests. 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the information on different months to sow, types and mixes of potting soil, necessary temperatures, levels of light and water requirements, seeds that need soaking, scratching or a cold spell in the fridge. Then after all that, planting those seedlings outside requires another long list of requirements.  

If you have the time, the patience of a saint and all the fancy equipment, like under pot heating, growing lights, a greenhouse, cold frame or even things like perlite and vermiculite then following all the guidelines could give you perfect results.

The question is: ‘How much worse will it be if you don’t follow instructions to the letter?’ Seeds may take longer to germinate. Fewer seeds may germinate. Seedlings may be weaker. At worst, nothing grows, and you’ve wasted the cost of a few seeds.

If you have a lack of space like me, I would advise starting most plants indoors. This provides a good start and ensures that something is actually growing before it takes a spot in the garden. You then also have spares for gaps as they appear. Planting straight into the ground can also lead to small stalks of nothingness – evidence of marauding molluscs. More mature plants are less susceptible or recover better.

Also, my neighbour reminded me last week that those new to gardening can find it difficult to distinguish between intentional seedlings and weeds. Once you’ve been growing a while, you’ll be able to tell the difference but until that time – by growing everything in separate containers you’ll have no issues with identification.

1. Find containers

Toilet roll tubes – great biodegradable modules that you pop straight into the ground. It doesn’t disturb the roots and it’s a good way to reuse waste packaging. These are only suitable for fast germinating and growing seeds like peas and beans as the cardboard can go a bit mouldy and fall apart if left damp for too many weeks. Name and date the tube in pencil.

Mushroom boxes – stack the toilet rolls in here so that they don’t fall over and have somewhere for their water to drain into.

Plastic pots – pierce the bottom. A bradawl is the easiest, or even a pin heated with a lighter will do.  

Tetra Pak cartons – If you pull out the side tabs and flatten the top they cut easily. You can also cut a corner on the bottom to allow for drainage.

Make sure you wash the plastic pots and Tetra Pak cartons thoroughly before use. You can write names and dates with a permanent marker. Place these in the mushroom boxes or a tray of some sorts to avoid water draining everywhere.

You now have many randomly sized pots for free and even better you’re helping the environment. You haven’t bought a plastic pot, made from crude oil, that uses energy and creates carbon dioxide in the manufacturing. You are reusing something pre-made for another purpose and when you’re finished with it you can wash it and still put it into your recycling.

2. Choose your seeds wisely

Don’t be tempted to plant the seeds out of an apple you just ate or out of the butternut squash you had for dinner. Despite being an advocate of free or cheap growing, this is not usually a successful way to grow food. The first issue is that a lot of tasty fruit doesn’t provide you with seeds that are ‘true’. That seed will have the half the DNA of the mother plant but the pollen that led to fertilisation could have come from any of the species including crab apple. You might be lucky enough to get a tasty undiscovered variety, or you could get something sour and gross. This gamble would be fine if you didn’t have to wait several years for the first apple to find out. Your butternut squash may produce fruit (yes – squashes are technically fruit) in the first year but it, again, may not taste as good. If the original was grown in another country your new plant may also not be suited for your climate. It may grow but might not fruit. It also may not be disease resistant.

Buy from a reputable supplier. Spend time reading the back of packs and choosing types of edibles and varieties that will work in your garden for its conditions. It may be worth noting that if you live in a paved or concreted yard – you could grow amazing summer squashes or aubergines. Generally, cities are warmer than the countryside and when there is a lot of concrete absorbing and radiating heat it can push the temperature higher still. You won’t, however, be able to grow deep rooted plants like artichoke without a ridiculously large pot.

Sow things that work for your soil and circumstances. E.g.

Seeds come in ridiculous quantities for small garden growers. I would never be able to plant 15 courgette or tomato plants in a year. I’d manage maybe 2 or 3. Kale comes in packs of something like 50 and at a push I’d manage maybe 10 plants. A great way to lower costs is to swap seeds or even plants with a neighbour. Seeds usually have plant before date, usually a couple of years after purchase.

Sort your acquired seeds into the months to be sown in. Sowing at the right time is something that I do believe is important. By sowing at the correct time, you ensure the soil outside will be suitable (frost free and/or warm enough) by the time your seedling is big enough to go out there. You also give your new plant a long enough period to grow and fruit to ripen before the weather turns cold. I.e. If you sow a tomato seed in January the plant will have grown far too big and probably died before the weather is warm enough to plant it outside. If you sow it in August by the time the plant has matured enough to flower the weather will be turning too cold to set or ripen fruit. I’m not too strict about dates though – if something should be sown February to March, I’ll still merrily sow it in the first 2 weeks of April. I would just maybe leave those plants indoors for a little longer so that they can catch up.

This is my crude, but effective, seed filing system. In early Jan before I start I sort everything into the month I’m going to plant in. If I sow something that I think I’ll want to sow again in a later month e.g. peas, beans and coriander rather than put it back into the original envelope I’ll put it into the next month I’ll want to sow it in. That’s why every Jan I need to resort.

Unless you have lots of experience for now avoid the seeds that need scarification (scratching the surface of the seed) or stratification (a period of cold).

3. Fill containers with Compost

The cheap and lazy me uses whatever giant bag of compost I happen to have open at the time. I feel it’s more efficient to sow everything in 30 pots in one go once or maybe twice a month. E.g. early March I may sow 5 containers of runner beans, 5 sugar snaps, 5 fine beans, 2 tromboncino, 2 pumpkin munchkin, 3 cherry tomatoes, 2 thai basil, 3 basil and 3 coriander. I’m sure each type of plant would have its own ideal type of potting soil but it’s so quick, easy and cheap just to fill all the pots with the same soil. Let’s face it – if it can’t grow with the decent compost I provide indoors, then it sure as hell isn’t going to make it in my terrible clay soil outdoors.  

4. Sow your seeds

I don’t believe in thinning. The idea that you sprinkle lots of seeds into a tray of compost, wait for them to grow and then prick individual seedlings into their own pots sounds like an inefficient use of time and resources. So many seedlings get squished or die in the process and roots get tangled. I also don’t have the heart to kill a food plant when the books say sow 2 or 3 together and pinch off the weakest 2.

How many you sow in each pot depends:

Things that will grow into tree/bush type things and you want to keep indoors for as long as possible like tomatoes, artichoke, pumpkins and other squashes, physalis, etc I’d stick to one seed per larger container.

Things that you just want to make plug plants for like kale, swiss chard, rocket, nasturtiums, you can do one seed per small container.

Things that grow tall and thin like cucamelons, peas and beans I tend to do 2 or 3 to a container.

Tender herbs that get cut down quite quickly (basil, coriander, dill) and so don’t get chance to grow very large I’ll sprinkle maybe 5 or 6 seeds in one.

I’d suggest planting a few more containers than you need in case you have a couple of dud seeds. You then also have a spare or two if you do plant out your first seedlings and they get ravaged by the slugs and snails. You can always give these away or do a seedling swap.

Label them so you know what you have. If you’re fastidious: plant, variety and date. If you’re me there’ll be an unintelligible scrawl on the side naming many different plants after I’ve used the same container a couple of times.

5. Leave to grow

Windowsills or any sunny spots will do. Keep the soil damp. Some seeds germinate almost immediately whilst some take a little longer. There may be containers that continue to look barren. Not all seeds within a pack are viable. Some plants are just harder. I’ve failed to germinate perilla, tomatillo and pomegranate this year. Following instructions to the letter may have led to success. Then again, it may not have. If you think something hasn’t grown pop something else into these pots. Because I like to keep it easy, cheap and avoid anything too time consuming I give up on the harder to grow things. There will be some things that are better (though more expensive) bought as plants.

6. Choose a spot suitable for your plant

You can ‘harden off’ your plants by putting the containers outside during the day and bringing them back indoors for cold evenings. If the nights aren’t freezing, I have often skipped this step with little or no damage. You will have to see for yourself how necessary this is for your garden. If unsure plant one straight into the ground and see if it’s doing OK a couple of days later.  

Ensuring enough sun, space and supports if necessary, gives you less work in the long run. If your plant is susceptible to slugs and snails, then you can cut the base off the container so you have a couple of inches of container as a barrier, but the roots still have soil access. You can put slug tape around the container or cover with the top half of a bottle to stop them getting in. I only bother with really precious plants that are very attractive to critters.

After all that it’s worth noting that carrots, beetroots and turnips are best sown in situ. Because they are easy small plants grown in larger quantities, they are just a faff to put in containers first. Beetroots will need thinning no matter how careful you are as each ‘seed’ is actually a cluster of seeds.

Then after that has been said, by growing perennials or self-seeding varieties you cut out all the above work. However, perennials usually take much longer to establish themselves and become productive. To get self seeders into the garden of course you need to sow them first. Things like peas, beans and squashes don’t have a perennial version and they can provide you with food as you wait for your perennials to get going.  

So, being end of June, there’s still time to sow some kale or Swiss chard for eating in spring, or peas (including sugar snaps and mangetout), beans (runner or French), beetroots, kohl rabi, , quick growing herbs (like basil, dill, coriander) or salad leaves for something yummy this year.

Today, out of that list I’ve only sown peas, but I’ve also sown an array of edible flowers that should hopefully make it into the lawn (more on that later). All of those would germinate in situ in this lovely weather, but the lawn flowers seedlings would never survive being trampled and I’m sure those little slimers are just waiting to take the growing tips of my beans! Grr…

Grow my pretties… grow…

Kales and Collards

Cavelo Nero Kale 3 months old

Short version: Grow perennial kales and collards for an easy life. In addition grow annual kales for eating through winter. Eat all bits of any brassicas that aren’t too fibrous. Daubenton’s kale is amazing – unless of course you dislike the taste of brassicas. If that’s the case then maybe this post isn’t for you, unless you can be convinced that home grown tastes better than shop bought.

Brassicas and St Bernards

So kales and collards are brassicas. These also include cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, the odd-looking kohl rabi and the Chinese sounding kai lan. You may find it surprising that they all belong to the same species, all with 4 petals in their flowers. If you remember your GCSE Biology you will know that that ‘same species’ means they can pollinate each other. It’s like dogs. All dogs are the same species despite how very different looking the breeds are. A chihuahua and a St Bernard could mate to produce puppies but I couldn’t begin to imagine what traits the offspring would have.

Brassicas, like dogs have diversified through human intervention. People have chosen traits that they like and through cultivation (or breeding in the case of dogs) have selectively grown (bred) a variety (breed) that has the desired characteristics. Some brassicas are grown for their flower buds, like cauliflower and broccoli. Some are grown for the succulent stems like, kai lan.

Given that they are all the same species and all parts of the plant (except the roots) are edible, I’d like to encourage you to try the bits of brassicas that you may not usually eat. It’s good for your bank account and it’s good for the environment. Obviously there are some bits that are not worth eating. You’ll not be surprised to hear that walking stick collard stems are really very tough. Feel free to try broccoli leaves or the flowers of any the brassicas. This year we have begun roasting the cauliflower leaves (shop bought I’m afraid) that we used to throw away. We literally pull the leaves off, wash, chop into 1-2cm width sections, toss in oil and a pinch of salt and roast on 190oC (fan) for 20mins. You can even roast them with the cauliflower florets and stem cut into around inch sized pieces. We find them tastier than the florets but tougher on the teeth.

To Grow or Not to Grow?

Being all the same species, it does mean that they generally do well in the same conditions. They are decently shade tolerant and are good for winter growing. They also favour alkaline soil. Now which of the brassicas are the easiest to grow?

Cabbages

The books all go on about cabbages and Brussel sprouts. I always see the seeds in the shops but I don’t know a single person who grows them. I attempted to grow cabbages, once about 11 years ago. They took an awfully long time. I patiently waited the suggested time, cut off my shot putt sized head, removed the lacey looking caterpillar eaten leaves, removed the leaves with little holes in, removed some more leaves, cut the now closer to tennis ball sized cabbage in half to find some more little worm like things. I was still determined to eat what I could salvage. The other 3 cabbages that I had managed to grow did not fare much better, but at least I was mentally prepared. I have not planted cabbages since. A red cabbage grew of its own accord last year but it didn’t even make it to my kitchen as it was so infested.

Brussel sprouts

My last pathetic plant of last year’s crop that by March still had no buds. At all.

I’ve grown about 20 Brussel sprouts plants in the course of 3 years. No matter how long I wait, I only get pathetic pea to marble sized buds. The buds eventually start to open instead of getting any bigger. Out of all the plants, in the whole time, I may have had about 5 respectable sized sprouts.

I could do the research and learn how to grow cabbages and sprouts successfully (maybe), but I just don’t see the point. They take forever to grow, they have a fairly large footprint, if they’re tasty they get eaten by something else first, you have to practise good crop rotation and they have to be planted every year. They also haven’t tasted any better than shop bought cabbages or sprouts.

Kales and Collards

Here begins the brassica love. So – about a year and a half ago I was looking for perennials to make life easier, something to keep the garden green over winter and something to cover the hungry gap. In my hunt I found kales and collards.

The Annuals

Clockwise starting top left: Red Russian, Pentland Brig and Cavelo Nero in a large pot by our front gate. These are about 3 months old and are crammed into the space. I’m hoping the Cavelo Nero will grow nice and tall and leave more space at the bottom for the others. I’ll eat whatever is growing the most into submission to allow space.

There is a plethora of annual (or biannual really) kales and collards seeds available in shops and online. Some of them are quite beautiful and come in pinks, whites, purples and greens. I, therefore, don’t understand why anyone grows ornamental cabbages.

Kales are fab! You sow the seeds. If you need to thin the plants, you eat the spare seedlings. Once you think the leaves are big enough and the plant has enough to spare – you start taking the leaves. The plant continues to grow, and you continue to harvest over a long period. You avoid a glut that needs storing and one of my favourite things about harvesting kale is that you are providing maintenance as you do so. Let me explain.

If you’re waiting for a plant to mature before you harvest, like cabbage, you don’t really pay much attention to it. If you’re regularly picking from a plant, as you look for leaves to harvest you may see slugs, snails or caterpillars that need picking off. If a leaf is badly infested with aphids and you don’t want to eat it, you can remove it and bin it. If you have a leaf with a few unwelcome guests, you can harvest it and give it a good wash before cooking. The pests are now going down the plug hole and are no longer in your garden.

Growth then slows down with colder weather, but there is still enough growth to feed you over winter. Kales and collards are hardy and after a frost they are sweeter. Then as the weather warms up the plant will attempt to flower to make seeds. When this happens to Cavelo Nero it is a bonus. The plant will send out masses of tasty tender flower shoots. These need to be cut off because once kales ‘goes to seed’ they die. However, if you keep cutting back the flower shoots more (albeit thinner ones) will grow to replace the ones you cut off. You do eventually give up as the flower shoots becomes so thin that you can’t see the point in trying to cook them.

It’s hard to see but in this photo the brightest green parts are the flower shoots just beginning here in March. They form at the base of the leaves and have their own mini leaves. They kept us in tender greens till the end of April.

There is a large number of varieties, but these are ones that I have grown and would recommend.

If anyone has any favourite kales that they would like to recommend or know of any kales that have yummy flower shoots like Cavelo Nero, please do post in the comments.

The Perennials

The perennial kales and collards are harder to get hold of. There are no seeds. The reason why these are perennial is that they don’t flower or make seeds for a few years. Even if a plant does flower and seed (and then, of course, die), because of the ease of cross pollination you couldn’t be sure that the offspring would be perennial. This means that you must get a cutting. This was something that I found quite difficult. These websites either have them or have a waiting list:

http://www.backyardlarder.co.uk

http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk

http://www.pennardplants.com

Daubenton’s Kale

I ended up getting my Daubenton’s kale from ebay. I bought 2 variegated and 2 non-variegated. The variegated does better in my garden and the cuttings root more easily. If you’ve looked at the websites, you may be shocked at the prices. I was too. Now that I’ve been growing mine for a year and a half I think the pricing is fair. The plants are still quite rare. They’re not something you’ll be likely to see in your local gardening centre. Apparently, they used to be more common but commercial cultivators in the past shunned perennial brassicas in favour of annuals that they could sell seed for year after year.

If they’re hard to get and expensive surely they’re not worth it, right? Well:

  • We get year-round abundance.
  • They’re expected to continue to do so for years.
  • They fed us through winter and the hungry gap.
  • Even now in June it is growing vigorously and with asparagus season over and our sugar snaps just starting, the Daubentons provide our family of 3 with a vegetable side dish every other day.
  • We’ve gotten plenty of new plants from the original 3. Some have been kept and grown and some given to friends. It’s not just a desire to get everyone growing it, it’s also like insurance. If I manage to kill all mine off hopefully there’ll be someone I could beg a cutting from.
  • They are mostly left alone by pests.
  • Most importantly, they taste yummy. I’ve had no bitterness at any point of the year. My very fussy 3 year old absolutely loves it just simply fried in oil with a bit of salt. She won’t eat shop bought curly kale.
  • The smaller leaves are tender. The large ones are tougher but still tasty.

That’s a lot to ask of a plant that cost you about a tenner. Maybe it’s because cuttings are small. Most people wouldn’t think twice about paying £10 for an apple tree.

Purple Tree Collard

6 months old and 3 feet tall.

It wasn’t till December last year that I finally managed to get hold of a purple tree collard (from The Backyard Larder). I have much less to say about it because I’ve only had it 7 months. Still, I’ve eaten from it three times so far and its taste is similar to the daubentons but is slightly nuttier and sweeter. It also requires a bit more chewing. My 3 year old has yet to touch it.

All my kales and collards, perennial or otherwise have few problems with pests beyond the occasional hole. The only thing that has been an issue has been powdery mildew. If it happens removal all the affected leaves and spray with a mix of a litre of water, a few drops of soap dish, a few drops of vegetable oil and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda. If caught late then it’s the same thing but you’ll be removing almost all the leaves. Whenever I have done this the plant has always sprung back after a month or so. It only happens in the hotter months when the plant is stressed from lack of water. The spores are spread by disturbance during rainfall and are specific to brassicas. So they won’t infect plants of other species and plants of other species with their own powdery mildew won’t infect your brassicas.

Two weeks later it doesn’t look so bad.

Other Brassicas

Last year I tried kohl rabi for the first time. I neglected them and past harvest time they had holes munched into the leaves and swollen stem. I luckily tried to recover what I could. I’m so glad I did, as they were very sweet, tender, almost juicy and slightly nutty. It was better than any that I had bought from a shop before.

The nine star broccoli is apparently a perennial cauliflower, despite its name. I wouldn’t know as mine is pathetic. I’ve removed the flowers in the hope that it will then divert its energy to plant growth. Time will tell. I’ll let you know if it works. This is 6 months old and a pitiful 8 inches. It does not look anything like cauliflower.

Kai Lan (Chinese broccoli) is apparently perennial but I’d never know as every time I’ve tried (and I’m Chinese … so I’ve really tried) pretty much everything is devoured by something that isn’t me. I think the slugs and snails gang up with the caterpillars for these.

So, in conclusion brassicas are good vegetables to grow for eating through winter, are shade tolerant and do well in alkaline soil. Out of the brassicas the collards and kales are less affected by pests. The younger leaves are tender but the older leaves less so. Harvesting can happen over a lengthy period. For the easiest option perennial kales and collards are edible all year round, including the hungry gap and requires none of the faff of yearly sowing, thinning, planting out and crop rotation. In small spaces a perennial kale is the most efficient use of space and time for growing food.

I cannot recommend Daubenton’s kale enough. I think it may be our family’s favourite green. It’s not easy to get hold of but I think it’s well worth the effort.

In the interest of experimentation I need to try another perennial kale. I have my sights set on Taunton Deane and I WILL find a space in the garden…. Er… somehow.