Creating a herb garden

FIGOherbgarden

Herbs are some of my absolute favourite plants to grow. They are easy to look after, grow prolifically, and make home-cooked meals taste a thousand times more delicious. What’s not to like?

When creating a herb garden, I would suggest placing it as close to the house as possible. My herb garden is outside the front door, where I can nip out to cut a bunch while I am cooking dinner. Herbs are best used fresh, after all – and what can be fresher than from the earth to the pot in five seconds flat?

Before planning your garden, think carefully about the kind of herbs you are likely to use. There is little point in cultivating lemongrass if you are never going to cook with it! Also, consider the placement of your annual and perennial herbs – you will want to give your perennials enough room to spread out as your herb garden becomes established.

Herbsgreenhouse

Here are a few of the herbs that I have in my garden, to give you some ideas:

- MINT: I use this endlessly in potato salads, Indian chutneys and iced drinks. It is notorious for growing like crazy, so if you want to keep it in check, try planting it in a sunken container. You can get all sorts of varieties – and they are fun to browse at a garden centre. I have some chocolate mint and it truly smells like fancy after-dinner mints!

- ROSEMARY: Easy to grow, its tall green-needled stems and pretty blue flowers really add to the texture and colour of a herb border. I planted it at the back of my herb garden for height. I always chuck in a few stems of rosemary when roasting vegetables – and when boiled with potatoes it makes for a delicately savoury mash.

- THYME: Low-growing clumps of thyme are best planted around the edges of a herb garden, so that they are not overwhelmed by the other herbs. Their tiny lilac flowers are incredibly attractive, too. I rip off stems and simmer them in sauces to give a lovely fragrant flavour.

- PARSLEY: This is an annual, although I have successfully over-wintered it during warm winters. I keep a little bit outside my front door for emergency cooking, but the rest I grow down at the allotment, at the edge of vegetable borders. It is perfect in a white sauce for fish pie – and I also really like it mixed with cheese, chopped peppers and mashed potato, and baked in potato skins. There is nothing like parsley for making a meal taste fresh!

- CHIVES: These tiny alliums, snipped into salads, give a wonderfully oniony flavour. Their bristly purple flowers look really showy in a herb garden. Plant them close to the edge of the border – perhaps behind the thyme – so that they can be seen in all their glory.

What herbs do you grow? Do let us know!

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Slugs and snails...

slug trap

As I stepped into the greenhouse this morning, I caught a snail unabashedly munching its way through my climbing bean seedlings. It was chewing the leaves right off the stems, leaving a trail of destruction in its slimy wake. It wasn’t even eating the entire leaf! Just chomping on the base of each one until it fell off, and then moving on to the next.

That particular snail found itself airborne pretty swiftly, flying to the far end of the garden. But where there’s one, there’s a dozen, and I felt it was high time to Do Something.

But, what Something should I Do?

Slug pellets: Many of my fellow allotment gardeners use slug pellets because they are cheap and highly effective. However, I would rather avoid them. It seems a particularly unpleasant way for a slug or snail to die, for a start: basically, the pellets cause them to over-produce slime and dehydrate. The pellets are also not great for wildlife and pets, who can eat them – or the slugs and snails which have consumed them – and suffer ill-effects. I don’t want to harm hedgehogs, thrushes and blackbirds. And I definitely don’t want our bantams to be pecking up slug pellets – after all, we eat their eggs!

Biological control: There are nematode slug killers available, which you mix with water and sprinkle over your garden. The nematodes (microscopic worms) are infected with slug-killing bacteria, and quickly put paid to the veggie pests. The treatment is effective for about six weeks – long enough to see you through a good portion of the germination season. I am tempted, but it would be expensive to get enough to cover the whole of our allotment.

Copper tape: Rather like we humans don’t like chewing aluminium foil, slugs and snails can’t bear sliding over copper. The metal reacts with their mucus, so wrapping tape around the base of your plant pots is an excellent mollusc deterrent. A totally organic solution, with no slug-death involved. The drawback? If you’re sowing lots of seeds in lots of pots, it can get pricey very quickly!

Slug-stalking: Nightly trips down to the greenhouse, armed with a torch, can be a good way of keeping on top of your veggie predators. Slugs and snails creep out in the cool, damp night, looking for tasty seedlings to snack on – and then a great big human grabs them, chucks them in a bucket, and tosses them down the end of the garden. (Or kills them, depending on the great big human’s level of squeamishness!) This is effective, but labour-intensive.

Beer traps: Slugs love beer. They love it so much that they will slither right into a jar of it and drown. Simply half-bury a jar in the ground, half-fill it with beer, and come back in the morning to count the victims! The slugs have to get close, though, to smell the beer, meaning that you need quite a lot of beer traps for this method to be effective.

For our greenhouse, we have decided to use a combination of beer traps (made with the dregs of my husband’s home brew) and slug-stalking. I am really intrigued by the nematode biological control, though – if you have used it, do drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.

P.S. I haven’t forgotten that I promised to show you my FIGO construction for protecting my broad beans! It was just that a sharp frost delayed me from planting out the seedlings – but they are getting so big and strong now that I think they are almost ready. Fingers crossed for next week!

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Onion sets and allotment neighbours

onionbraid

One of the great things about keeping an allotment is having allotment-neighbours. Our allotment-neighbour, Tom, is a mine of information on vegetable gardening. He is also very generous with his plants, and regularly passes his surplus seedlings over the fence to us – always gratefully received!

I’d never bothered to grow onions before, reasoning that they are cheap and plentiful in the shops, and that I would rather give my allotment space to more expensive or unusual veggies. However, last year, Tom gave us about forty onion seedlings, which we plonked straight into one of our no-dig vegetable beds. They grew like crazy. Tom lent us an onion hoe to deal with the weeds. I’d never encountered an onion hoe before, but it’s a super little tool – it has a swan neck, and lets you grub up weeds quite close to your onion bulbs without damaging your precious veg.

We ended up with a bumper crop of white onions, which we cured in the sun before braiding them for storage. They easily carried us through the portion of the year where it is hard to find UK-origin onions for sale in the supermarkets, and they were utterly delicious – crisp in texture and strong in flavour.

I really want to do the same again this year, so rather than rely on hand-outs from Tom, I’ve done a little bit of research on growing onions. It turns out that a lot of gardeners prefer growing onions from ‘sets’ – these are immature bulbs. Apparently they are less prone to onion fly and mildew than onions grown by seed, and because the bulb is already partially grown, they mature quickly – great for the impatient gardener! I’m getting them in this week, and they should crop by late summer.

Also on my list of things to do this week is another successional sowing of spinach and lettuce, and to sow my leeks – we pulled up the very last of our leeks just a few days ago! Squash and melons are also on my list – our buttercup squashes were incredible last year, so creamy and sweet – and I’m obsessed with cucumbers at the moment, so I will be sure to get a few of those on the go. (I must make sure to sow some extra, so that I have some to give to Tom!)

I have also been hardening off my broad bean seedlings in preparation for planting out. These will be going straight under a FIGO-frame with a veggie protection net over the top, as I have learned my lesson regarding broad bean plants and pigeons... Look out for pictures of that later this week!

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Harvesting your own seed

rocketflower

Remember I said that we managed to over-winter some rocket? Well, this month it has come into flower, and it looks as though we are going to have an abundance of rocket seeds just in time for spring planting. I am chuffed about this because a) you can never have enough rocket, and b) I was about to go and buy a load of rocket seeds, and now I don’t have to!

Harvesting your own seeds is a really great way of keeping the cost of your allotment down. Packets of seed at the garden centre often cost around the £3 mark – but growing your own? Well, that’s free…

Seeds that I have successfully harvested myself include:

-- coriander – these have the added bonus that you can use any surplus seeds in curries

-- borlotti beans – these dry really well, and I just love their pink-and-white marbled appearance

-- peas – just make sure you soak the dried peas in a little water overnight before you sow them

-- nigella – also known as love-in-the-mist, these have copious seeds which dry out within the pretty seed head

-- tomatoes – as long as you don’t select a hybrid variety, these should self-pollinate and produce offspring that are similar to the parent plant.

One important thing to know is that you shouldn’t try to harvest seeds from a hybrid variety plant. Hybrids are created by careful cross-pollination of two parent plants to create a plant with particular characteristics. Seed from the offspring plant will have varied characteristics, and won’t have the ‘hybrid vigor’ which makes the shop-bought seeds so desirable.

You might find it useful to construct a FIGO frame to put protective netting over your plants while you wait for the seed to ripen - otherwise you may discover that the birds get there first!

Seeds need to be dried out thoroughly before they are stored. I like to spread mine out on newspaper, and keep them for a few weeks on a shelf in an insulated outhouse. If you have an airing cupboard and can spare the space, that makes ideal seed-drying territory!

When the seeds are dry and ready for storage, put them into labelled envelopes, and seal them properly. There is little more annoying than finding a mixed-up sea of seeds rolling around the bottom of your storage box!

Have you ever harvested seed successfully? What tips would you give other growers?

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Beans, Peas & Spinach: dreaming of summer veg!

feb spinach

I love getting my spinach, beans and peas going in February – it feels like a promise of summer ahead! They are my absolute favourites to sow, too. No fiddly little seeds that get stuck to damp fingers – they are lovely and chunky, and so satisfying to press into the compost.

 So far, I’ve sown the following, all in pots and under cover in our greenhouse:

Spinach: Usually, my main mistake with spinach is taking my eye off the ball in terms of picking the leaves. If you leave them to grow too big, I find that they tend to become a little bitter, and leave a furry residue on your teeth! However, baby spinach leaves are incredible in salads and hot dishes, so the key is to harvest frequently. My resolution this year is to never leave it more than two days without picking a good handful...

Climbing French beans: I once grew a dwarf variety of French bean, and will never bother to do so again, as the yield was so poor! I’m sure some people have success with them, but for me the joy of the climbing varieties is how prolific they are, and I would highly recommend giving them a go if you haven’t already.

We got tons of tender green pods from our climbing French beans last year, which were delicious steamed with butter, cold in salads, stir-friend, curried – they were just so versatile that we ended up eating them in nearly every meal. (I also far, far preferred them to runners, because they don’t go all scaly and stringy if you leave them on the plant a bit too long!)

Broad beans: I bought an early variety this time, as I felt impatient! Broad beans do sometimes seem like a lot of effort for not very much crop, but oh my goodness, those fat, juicy beans are so worth the trouble. They freeze exceptionally well, but mine never make it as far as the freezer – they are too tasty!

Sugar snaps: I get a bit frustrated that you don’t eat the pods of ordinary peas, as it seems such a waste – so sugar snaps make perfect sense to me! I love their crisp bite when you eat them raw.

Last summer, our sugar snap crop was so heavy that I experimented with freezing some. I blanched them in batches in boiling water, then transferred them directly to a bowl of iced water to stop them from cooking, before drying them off and bagging them for the freezer. We’ve been eating the frozen ones all winter, and I am glad to report that they’ve kept their colour and texture well. It is such a treat to eat your own home-grown summer veg over winter, so I intend to do the same again this year.

My plan is to get all the plants growing good and strong in pots in the greenhouse, before planting them outside once the weather has warmed up a bit. Some people prefer to plant beans and peas directly into the ground, but I like to get my FIGO frame set up first, then plant the strong little seedlings in exactly the right places around the frame, ready to climb on up!

What vegetables have you got going in February? Do drop us a line and let us know!

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