27 Apr 2016

How to successfully grow huge chilli plants

first chilli flower


I don't want to jinx myself by putting this in writing but ...  I'm now quietly hopeful of growing some chillies this year since this flower appeared on my kitchen windowsill plant yesterday.

I'm being tentative in this claim as it's well documented that I'm rubbish at growing plants indoors. Outside, no problem, but inside? Bleh. I wonder why that is? There are many more buds waiting to open and I'm certain that this vigorous little plant has a lot more growing to do.

I bought the sturdy but tiny plant in mid-February from Joy Michaud of Sea Spring Seeds. She is an amazing and passionate chilli grower and it's a testament to her skill in giving plants a good start in life that this chilli has continued to thrive in my dubious care.

I didn't do at all well with my chilli growing from seed last year so this year decided to treat myself to head start in the chilli department - and it looks as though it's paying off.  I've potted the plant on twice since purchase and it needs to go into its final pot this week as I can just see a few roots at the base of the current pot.  This is possibly where I'm getting it right this year; I watched a couple of excellent videos from the Sea Spring Seeds youtube channel with some top tips. (Link below.)

Sea Spring harvested 2,407 chillies from one enormous Dorset Naga plant two years ago!  Joy is generous with her advice on how it's done - here are a few of her tips:

  • Seedlings should be pricked out into a one litre pot and, when the roots are showing at the base, potted on into a 7.5 litre pot; they'll grow rapidly and can then be repotted into successively larger containers, as needed.  A plant will grow to the size of it's pot (depending on the variety of chilli you're growing) but a small pot will restrict its growth.  (Video explaining this here.) The giant champion Dorset Naga was in a 160 litre container! Possibly too big for my space - and for my cooking needs - but you take my point. 
  • Mix dried chicken manure pellets into the potting compost when transplanting into each successive pot from 7.5 litres upwards; these are slow release and will provide your plant with essential nutrients all season.
  • Water well and fertilise regularly throughout the season (in addition to the chicken manure pellets).
  • When the plants get large, support the branches. Push a couple of canes into the side of the pot and circle the plant with string, securing it to the canes. Add more layers of string as the plant grows.

So there we have it.  If I follow all this good advice, I might just have to book my slot at the local horticultural show this year!

For fellow chilli growing novices like myself, oceans of good advice can be found on the Sea Spring channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfZtoYQwmLpJ3k6BYVH4aFw

Update.
By August, I had lovely large plants and chillies ready for harvest - all grown on my balcony.  Read that post here: A chilli update

21 Apr 2016

Pickings and Pie



This year I have three rhubarb plants.  I don't need three, I needed one (all that my space would allow) and grew Glaskins' Perpetual from a seed several years ago.  It's huge and not very pink but I feel very proprietorial as I nurtured it into life all by myself.  Even so, when I saw Red Champagne crowns for sale a couple of years ago, of course I thought they sounded better.  Red. Champagne. Mm mmm, what's not to love?

I bought two crowns, planted them under the fruit trees as I'd read that rhubarb could tolerate a bit of shade and where (at the time) there was plenty of bare earth that needed covering and left them to it.  I thought I'd lost one plant last year as, without a hose, things get pretty dry under the trees.  The other decided to flower you may remember.  I wondered whether I'd ever get to taste any red champagne sticks but the crowns were inexpensive so it wouldn't be a huge loss. But reports of the death of my champagne rhubarb crowns were premature.



This spring, with the winter being relatively short lived and the rain lasting rather longer, I've watched rhubarb sticks from all three crowns gradually appearing over the past few weeks.  At one point I was tempted to plonk a black plastic bucket over one of them to try my hand at forcing but, as tends to happen, I didn't get round to it.  (Anyone had any success doing this? And is it worth it?)

Serendipitously, I opened an email from Simple Things mag last week to find a recipe for Rhubarb and Rosewater Tart. The timing was immaculate as I had the rhubarb in the garden and was in the mood for baking - and had some shop bought cheat's sweet shortcrust pastry in the fridge that needed using. (I'd like to say that I whipped up a batch of home-made pastry but I didn't. There.) It was delicious, whether eaten with cardamon flavoured cream or with friends and family. I made the pie in a smaller tin than suggested to share with family and used the extra filling with a dollop of jam in a small batch of Maids of Honour tarts for my goodie tin at home.

I've lost track of where we are in the gardener's calendar - I assume everyone's rhubarb is up and growing vigorously?  If you like the sound of the pie, the recipe is here and, with ready made pastry, is a doddle to make.   (The addition of rosewater is delicious but could be omitted if you have none, leaving a rhubarb and frangipane pie.)

20 Apr 2016

Nature in the City: Wildlings Wednesday



Nature is all around us and I can get my daily dose from nearby Hampstead Heath but, try as I might to ignore it, there's also a lot of bricks and mortar around.  That's London for you. Some of the architecture around here is brutal - in a modernist way - the local secondary school for example -while elsewhere in the neighbourhood there are parks and turrets, canals, domes and houses with lovely old walls and neatly planted front gardens. The contrast of old and new, concrete and nature is a daily sight potentially more so here than in the countryside.

Even in this all-embracing environment there are sights that just don't fit and one of these is the ability of plants to self seed into the most obscure places. It's awesome. Photographer Paul Debois held a similar fascination for this subject which he captured in his 'Wildlings' exhibition a couple of years ago.

The definition of a wildling is a plant that's escaped from cultivation.  I like that, the idea of a plant planning on how to tunnel out of a tidy garden or leap over the boundary wall - or just the thought of plants having a secret desire to live life on the other side.

Some wildlings are welcome - purple campanula is a regular sight growing out of walls around here, as is Corydalis lutea - and a memory of the lily of the valley and mint that crept into my mother's garden under the next door neighbour's fence has just come to mind. But around here, I'll take what I can get.  These for example, spotted on a sunny spring walk - gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'a weed is only a plant in the wrong place'!



2 types of fern and herb-Robert | Polystichum setiferum | railway bluebells 


Clockwise from top left:
Calendula on the railway embankment,
Feverfew, Brunnera, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) all growing amongst stone pavers.


Random facts:
Apparently fresh leaves of Herb Robert can be used in salads or to make tea and are said to repel mosquitoes if rubbed on the skin.  



1 Apr 2016

Extravaganza! The RHS Spring Plant and Orchid Show

I have a thing for automata and this one was on show at the RHS halls in February

While I often hanker for the country life, living in London does have its occasional perks. One such is coming up over the next two days with the second of the RHS spring shows - this one is billed as a Spring Plant Extravaganza and includes the RHS Orchid show. There will be talks throughout both days and there's also a sneak peek at the show garden being built for RHS Tatton Park by the Young Designer of the Year. Wowzer!

It's wonderful that the RHS puts on these shows because, no matter what the weather outside, visitors can be cozy and warm indoors, drooling over a selection of the most beautiful plants and getting advice from experienced nurseries and growers. Not to be missed, especially if you have a bit of cash to spend.

This is not to say that non-London folk will be overlooked as it's only a couple of weeks before the RHS spring show in Cardiff, followed by Malvern at the beginning of May and Chelsea (whoop whoop) just three weeks after that. * By which time it will be almost summer.  So, plenty to entertain us while waiting for our seeds to grow.

I can't get to this weekend's show (gardening deadlines to meet) but I did make it to the earlier show in February. I went because I knew that Pennard Plants would, as usual, be there with their enormous A-Z selection of seed potatoes plus I needed some more Polka raspberries from them - and why pay postage? I also wanted to pick up some baby chilli plants from the very reliable Sea Spring Seeds; my home-sown chilli plants matured very late last year, giving me just the one fruit, and then died overwinter. I knew that I could pick up healthy little plants at the show and these are now growing steadily on my kitchen windowsill - sorted! Sea Spring also sell an awesome selection of seeds if you want to grow your own salad leaves, tomatoes and chillies, including the infamous Dorset Naga, one of the hottest chillies available - but I think I'll stick to the salad leaves.

Having made my purchases (including some Heritage tomato seeds, again from Pennard, and some more gardening gloves), I was free to wander around the show drinking in the buzz and excitement of gardeners embracing a new gardening year. It's part of the fun, knowing you're among like-minded passionate gardeners and there were plenty of impromptu chats among visitors. There were the usual award winning displays of snowdrops, primulas, hepaticas and iris reticulata (all heart-stoppingly beautiful) but, hey, that was February, we've moved on since then.  For a taste of what might be found in today's show,  photos in the collage below were taken at last year's spring show.



With so many nurseries and trade stands here, there's always the possibility of picking up a really exciting new plant.  I bought the glorious Geum 'Totally Tangerine' from Hardy's Garden Plants here a couple of years ago, the same plant that was all over Chelsea flower show that year. Hardy's are fantastic at putting together stunning and inspirational plant combinations in their exhibit - in fact, Rosy Hardy has a show garden at Chelsea this year.  How do I know that?  The RHS had put on a large display of the drawings and plans for this year's Chelsea gardens in one of the halls and it looks like it's going to be a corker.  More about this in a later post.

So please go along to the show if you can - I want to read about it! The show is on today and tomorrow (1st + 2nd April,  10-5 pm).  Venue is the RHS Halls in Westminster (Victoria or Pimlico tube stations) and there's a cafĂ© on site.

Totally Tangerine - how could I resist?


* The Harlow Carr flower show is in June, Tatton Park in July and Hyde Hall is in August.  Check out the RHS Events page for more info.

30 Mar 2016

Lashings of tea, books and rain


As Bank Holiday Mondays go, this week's was fairly typical - lashing rain and lots of it.  Despite promises of a dry day, I woke up to the sound of wind whistling through the double glazing and rain being hurled against the window panes.  Just another stormy spring day in England.  Obviously the sensible course of action was to make a huge mug of tea, collect up my notebook and pencil, seed catalogues and gardening books and retire back to the sanctum of my bed to spend the morning in my pyjamas planning my seed order for this year.  Pretty much the perfect morning, actually.

For this pleasant interlude I pulled 'The Great Vegetable Plot', 'A Taste of the Unexpected' and 'Grow for Flavour' off the shelves and worked through them. I was particularly absorbed in reading The Great Veg Plot - a book I've had for many years but haven't read it for quite a while - shame on me because I found the author's reasoning for choosing what to grow quite illuminating. (Note: I would recommend this book for beginner growers; it's readable, inspirational and instructive.)

You'd think after growing food for quite a few years now that I'd pretty much have the seed list off pat, but I like to remain open to new possibilities.  I have limited space so it's essential to make sure that I'm using it well by growing the best tasting veg plus a few unusual new tastes. (And last year my tomatoes were a disaster so I'm grabbing the opportunity to try something different.)

By the end of my leisurely morning, I was well on the way to creating a (very long) list of seeds to buy. First, I considered the three categories of plants in The Great Veg Plot - Freshly Picked, Un-buyables and Desert Island picks. Interesting, huh?  The first two groups are surely the reason why anyone would want to grow their own, however small the available space. And the last group clarified my thinking quite effectively.

So what would you put into the freshly picked category?  I'd definitely put crunchy mange-tout, baby climbing beans, sun warmed tomatoes, salad leaves and young podded broad beans. These are all veg I love to snack on as I wander the garden in the summer.  Peas too when I remember to grow them. And Cape Gooseberries are so much nicer eaten straight from the bush - mine grows as a perennial.

With the storm still raging outside, I turned my thoughts to the 'Un-buyables'. What's interesting about these is that since the book's publication in 2005, a lot of the veg covered in this section are now available in selected supermarkets. So no longer un-buyable, but possibly hard to get. But shouldn't we also think about the days and miles between harvest and sale?  Veg such as globe artichokes, asparagus, edible flowers, pea tips and some of the more unusual squashes and beetroot are much nicer harvested at their freshest so perhaps these need moving to 'Better Grown than Bought' (I just made that up) rather than 'Un-Buyable'.

Karmazyn.
Un-buyables: Karmazyn beans sown earlier.
Superb flavour and seed readily available from Dobies, Chilterns, Suttons, Fothergills and More Veg
For my own un-buyables, my list would have to include rainbow chard, achocha, honeyberries (like blueberries), a rainbow of carrots, spaghetti squash, wild garlic and pink Karmazyn broad beans. (Incidentally, I came across a broad bean called 'Red Epicure' which stays red when steamed. Anyone tried these?)  I'm also growing Borlotti beans for the first time this year as my Cherokee Trail of Tears heritage beans of last summer were dismal. Each spring I hope for greater things!  I also checked into Mark Diacono's 'A Taste of the Unexpected' for inspiration here - and wished that my Chilean Guava of a couple of years ago had survived.

And lastly, Desert Island Plants - these are the must-haves, the plants that influence and enhance my cooking, that I take real pleasure in growing. Taking the name at face value, what would I absolutely have to have in my garden?  And if my choice was limited to just five plants, what would I choose?  Let's see - herbs, of course, such as parsley and thyme, raspberries, Cavolo kale and cape gooseberries. (That was hard - imagine life without chillies, pak choi, salad leaves and salad onions!)

But I still wasn't finished. Refreshing my mug of tea (and bringing a plate of toast back from the kitchen as well) I completed the indulgence by reading through my favourite seed catalogue, pen in hand, and circling all the seeds that appealed. Having noted these down in my book alongside the list of my perennial veg and the plan of the veg patch, I now have the onerous task of whittling down my list to fit the available space. Still, there's always pots and containers …

So, I'm intrigued - what would your top five Desert Island plants be - and do you grow any Un-Buyables that you'd recommend?  Tell all!  :o)



25 Mar 2016

A little chaos

March tulips

This year I'm being very relaxed about it all. Seed sowing, that is. Having successfully gambled on sowing sweet pea seeds into pots on my balcony in late November and a first flush of broad beans into trays in February, I've decided to mostly forego trays of seedlings on every windowsill in favour of sowing direct outdoors this year. Am I alone in becoming increasingly uncertain of when best to sow? One whiff of sunshine is enough to convince me that it would be okay to start a few seeds off, only to have my hopes dashed when that smidgeon of sun is replaced by days of bitingly cold winds - or worse, clear nights with frosty dawns.  For those who do succumb to a few trays of seeds on the windowsill, the jolly game of turn and turn again begins - unless you're fortunate in having light drenched living quarters or a greenhouse. (I don't.* see tip at end of post!)

It's hard to resist though, isn't it? All those seed catalogues seducing us with beautifully photographed packets of potential.  I restrain myself by knowing that there's never going to be enough space in the garden here for everything I want to grow so I'm making lists while biding my time before sowing. In previous years I've had windowsills stuffed with plants growing wildly etiolated weeks before the weather softened towards summer.  I've gone to the other extreme too and started my seed sowing as other bloggers wrote about how well their carefully nurtured plants were doing outside.  Undeniably, I have to acknowledge that spring is February to April; despite the appearance of daffodils and primroses, it's too cold at one end and possibly too wet and windy at the other - even with climate change.  A middle path is needed.

For me, that compromise has taken the form of sowing (yes, I succumbed) a few seeds indoors in early March to get slightly ahead of the game (tomatoes, chillies and a few grasses - all needing heat to get started) but for other spring sowings, I'm taking my cue from the tulips.  I know, bonkers. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory.  But while I've been raking, rebuilding and pruning, I've been keeping a close eye on what my bulbs and perennials are doing - and all the tulips have slowly produced buds with one or two ready to open. This is an early start for the tulips so I'm going to let nature lead the way. I've been in limbo since mid-March but once those bulbs are in bloom, that's my cue to start sowing, both outdoors and in.  The temperature could still drop but, I have to admit, this way holds more anticipation and excitement than checking the local weather forecast!

So, on this beautiful blue skies day (allegedly just the one for now), I'll be carrying on with a myriad of other garden jobs that need to be done - including transplanting self-sown seedlings and pondering how to prune the top of the pear trees which must be three times my height by now. There'll be time enough tomorrow (while it's raining) to go through my seed box and plan what to grow.

How's everyone else doing? Have you started off your annuals or will you, like me, wait a couple more weeks?

PS.  Frustrated gardeners might like to pay heed to the Higgledy Gardener in Cornwall who advises not to direct sow before mid-April, leaving a few mid-May sowings to extend the season even longer.  But even he will walk on the wild side occasionally - his commitment to provide borders in bloom at the Cornish Port Eliot festival at the end of July has necessitated an early sowing under cover (cloche, not greenhouse).


* In an attempt to even out the light source for my seedlings, I place a large sheet of white card between my windowsill seed trays and the darker room behind to reflect some of the window light back.  The lengths we go to, eh!


7 Mar 2016

Thrilling Times

… or should that be Telegraph?

I don't have an appropriate photo so here's a gratuitous image of
Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve' about to flower in January


Thanks to the eagle eyes of Anna at Green Tapestry, I was alerted to a rather splendid bit of news yesterday. The Telegraph had published a piece called 'The gardening bloggers you should be following' and, to my amazement, the Urban Veg Patch got a mention!  Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Of course, I was a bit player in a stellar cast - other blogs mentioned may be familiar: Rusty Duck blog written by Jessica, David Marsden aka The Anxious Gardener,  Jono Stevens writing at Real Men Sow and, to show we mere mortals are in excellent company, Tom Stuart-Smith, garden designer of renown.  I didn't know he even had a blog but will definitely be checking that out.  I met him last year and can tell you that he's a truly nice person.  And I mean that in the best possible sense of that rather overused adjective.

So.  I now find myself with new blogs to explore, including that of Compostwoman (what a great name!) and the Kitchen Garden blog of the article's author Francine Raymond.

Many thanks to Francine for her article and to everyone who has ever popped over to read my blog - your support is so much appreciated.  Cheers!

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