We’ve been sent some seeds to try

We all like to be asked our opinion, right? So, when Westland got in touch and asked if we’d be interesting in trialling and reviewing some of their products, of course we said yes.

As a start, they sent us some seeds from their Bursting with Flavour range.

The six packets of seeds we received

According to the Westland website, the Bursting with Flavour range has been designed: “… to help food enthusiasts reach new flavour heights in their home-cooked meals. The range includes a mix of easy to grow fruit, vegetable and herb seeds that can be grown in small spaces …”

I think that here at Quest for Veg we can safely be described as food enthusiasts!

The seeds we received were:

Here’s Andrew sowing the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in the greenhouse, and the radishes in a raised bed in the allotment:

We’ll sow the carrots and beetroot as soon as we get the beds prepared.

One thing that did strike us was that for the ones we sowed in the greenhouse: there were not many seeds in each packet. The average packet contents for the peppers is just six, and the tomatoes and cucumbers ten in each. At £2.99 per pack, I think if we were buying these in the garden centre, we’d probably choose a variety with more seeds in the packet – we do like to feel we’re getting our money’s worth! But if space is at a premium, or you’re looking for something promising more flavour, why not give these a try?

I am happy to report that we will probably not go short of beetroot (200 per pack),  radish (400 per pack) or carrots (500 per pack).

The soil miller and the oscillating hoe

We were very fortunate to have been given two tools for cultivating the soil and hoeing by our good friend David.

In this video, Andrew talks about how to clean and care for your tools, and we show them both in action.

The soil miller

Close up of the head of a Wolf Garten soil miller
The soil miller is a Wolf Garten product. With its star shaped wheels, it looks fabulously medieval! They are designed to break down the soil as you work it back and forth, and a rear blade that cuts through any weeds.

Not only that, but the soil miller comes from the Wolf Garten multi-change tool range, which comprises a selection of handles and tool heads. Having got a handle we could potentially explore other tool heads in the range.

The oscillating hoe

Close up of the head of an oscillating hoe
Also known as the stirrup hoe, the swivel hoe or the reciprocating hoe. The stirrup shaped head has a swinging motion that keeps it at the right angle. It should have a sharp edge that cuts through weeds as you move it back and forth through the top layer of soil.

It should be self sharpening. We cleaned ours up and Andrew gave the edge a bit of a sharpen. Hopefully, that’s all we need to do to keep it in good working order.

A very quick tour of the greenhouse

It’s the middle of April and we have a full house – the greenhouse is bursting at the seams! We’re aiming to bring on a succession of seedlings over a range of plants and we’re not quite ready to start hardening things off.

Not only that, Andrew won some zinnia seeds from Mr Fothergill and couldn’t resist sowing them. We have no idea where we’re going to plant them but their rosy purple flowers should look amazing.

You may get the impression from this video tour that Sandra is not a huge fan of marrows. Can you convert her? If you have any recipe suggestions, please let us know!

And here are a couple of pictures:

A pumpkin plant surrounded by tomatoes to the left and herbs to the right with aubergines and courgettes beyond that

A pumpkin plant surrounded by tomatoes (to the left) and herbs (to the right), with aubergines and courgettes beyond that

A tray of parsley and dill, with tomatoes to their left and lettuce seedlings beyond that

A tray of parsley and dill, with tomatoes to their left and lettuce seedlings beyond that

How to prick out seedlings

In this video, Andrew demonstrates how to handle seedlings during pricking out.

Aim to prick out seedlings as soon as you can get hold of a seed leaf (called a cotyledon). That is the only part of the seedling you should handle. This is because the cotyledons are very hardy. Other parts of the seedling can be damaged easily which may at best put the plant under stress, and at worst damage or even kill the seedling.

Choose a container that is going to be big enough to allow them to grow to the size you want for planting out into their final position. We used a range of cells trays and pots depending on the size the plant is likely to grow to – pumpkins went in larger pots than alpine strawberries!

The compost used for pricking out can be potting or universal /multi purpose compost. We use peat free.

When you have potted up your seedlings, give them a good watering, and water regularly. When the plant shows signs of growth, such as developing more leaves, you should consider adding a fertiliser to encourage root growth.

Andrew holding a cell tray containing newly pricked out zinnia seedlings
The seedlings shown in the video are Zinnia Purple Prince that Andrew won from Mr Fothergill.

Planting our first earlies

Here we go. Second week of April. Chitted potatoes ready to be planted. Lots of seeds that can be sown directly into the soil. Bring it on.

Chitted potatoes on the kitchen work surface
We started the day full of hope and ambition. What can I say? It was a lot harder than anticipated.

Part of the problem was, of course, the weeds. We uncovered the planting area only to see a host fresh weed shoots.

We rolled back the geotextile to reveal an array of weeds that needed to be removed

They all had to be dug out carefully because even the smallest amount of root can grow a new plant (or two!).

A piece of bindweed root about an inch (2cm) long and the plant that has grown from it

Bindweed generating a new plant from about an inch (2cm) of root

 

Green alkanet shoots growing from a piece of root that had been missed and left in the soil

Green alkanet looking slightly alien

So, by the time it came to digging trenches to plant the potatoes I was pretty much exhausted.

Sandra digging over the area where we wanted to plant our potatoes
Nevertheless, trenches were dug and potatoes planted. You can see how we got on in this video.

We’re also trying out planting potatoes in bags that Andrew is making. He is using the plastic fabric from some spare one ton builder’s bags. He cuts it to size and sews two seams up the side and attaches a base panel. Here is the prototype.

Andrew's homemade potato planting bag

Andrew’s homemade potato planting bag

It will be interesting to compare the crop yield with those in the ground. He is also using the fabric to create other things such as this hanging bag.

Andrew's homemade plant hanging bag prototype
You’ll notice that we didn’t plant any seeds. I’m afraid we exhausted ourselves dealing with the potatoes. The seeds will have to wait for another day!

End of March tour of the plot

We’ve got a lot further in our Quest for Veg than we had dared to hope.

This is mainly due to the terrific amount of help we’ve received from our very good friends Richard Anderson (Anderson Landscapes), and Elisa Contreras and Rodney Williams (The Secret Garden).

When we started, I think we anticipated that our first year would probably be spent getting the allotment into shape. And yet here we are, just entering April, and we are looking forward to sowing our first seeds on the plot.

Not only that but during March, Richard very kindly gave us the use of his greenhouse. This enabled Sandra to sow her first seeds.

A view of the greenhouse: empty, clean and ready to use

The greenhouse Richard is allowing us to use


Coriander seedlings in a seed tray

Coriander seedlings in the greenhouse

We decided to try to create some woodchip paths to help define the plot and give us some relatively mud free areas to work on. By chance, Andrew came across a Garden Inspirations of Cheam who were working on a tree across the road from where we live. They enthusiastically agreed to deliver the woodchip straight to the plot.

A huge pile of woodchip being tipped out of the back of a truck

Our delivery of woodchip

We found a little garden cart by Draper which we could attach to Andrew’s mobility scooter. It’s perfect for transporting tools and equipment to and from the allotment. Andrew made a liner so that we could also use it for moving the woodchip from the gate to our plot.
A view of the garden cart, full of woodchip and attached to the back of Andrew's scooter

Our very useful little cart


Our woodchip path

Our woodchip path which is wide enough to get the scooter turned round

Richard also came up with some compost that was surplus to requirements. He brought it to the site, and he and Elisa moved it to the plot. We used it to add to the raised bed we made using builder’s bags.
Richard and Elisa shovelling compost out of the back of Richard's van

Richard and Elisa hard at work moving the compost

We bought some weed suppressing membrane and covered most of the plot to, er, suppress the weeds.

Our plot covered in weed suppressing membrane

Our plot all tucked up in its geotextile blanket

And we’re chitting some potatoes which are now ready for planting out.

Potatoes chitting

Potatoes chitting away very happily

We should be planting out our potatoes very soon. We’ll also be direct sowing some seeds and transplanting some seedlings that have been started in the greenhouse.

Hopefully, we’ll also be putting a water tank on the site soon and deciding on what shed we want. Roll on April!

Dandelion – friend or foe?

image of a dandilion flower in bloom

Say dandelion to most gardeners and they’ll say weed right back to you. Think of a commercial weed control chemical and the chances are it will have the picture of a dandelion on it. But is this reputation deserved? Is it time to think about growing dandelions as a crop?

What’s in a name?

Dandelions have a long history. They have been recorded in cultivation for at least 1100 years. Their Latin name is Taraxacum officinale, with Taraxacum thought to originate from their medieval Persian name tarashaquq.

The officianale bit of the name indicates the plant has been regarded as an official herb either culinary or medicinal. Indeed they are said to contribute, among other things, to liver health, strong bones, skin health, gall bladder function, reduced acne, weight loss, lowering diabetes, maintaining blood pressure, having a diuretic action,  and treating  jaundice, anaemia, constipation! It is even purported that they have anti-cancer properties.

While we’re talking about names, dandelion comes from their French name dent-de-lion or lion’s teeth, a name inspired by their long irregular leaves with jagged tooth-shaped edges.

How to use

Dandelions are said to have both medicinal and culinary uses. Their roots, leaves and flowers can all be eaten.

But it is worth noting that their milky sap may be a skin irritant and in severe cases could possibly cause contact dermatitis after handling. Dandelion pollen has been known, on rare occasions, to cause allergic reactions when eaten, or adverse skin reactions in sensitive individuals.

This only highlights that you need to take care when dealing with plant material. Wear gloves and try a little before diving right in and munching away, are sensible precautions.

Feeling brave? Read on.

dandilion flower opening with an out of focus flower in the background

Beverages

Dandelion roots can be roasted and ground, and used to make a caffeine-free dandelion coffee. This is well worth the effort, as it tastes very good. Andrew has made it while out camping. Simply collect some roots, give them a good wash and roast them in a tin can until they are brown and crumbly (but not black as this will spoil the taste). Break the roasted roots into small chips (about the size of instant coffee granules) and pour boiling water over them. Let this brew for a little while and strain. Enjoy as it is, or add milk and sugar to taste.

Not planning on going camping? You can make this coffee in your kitchen at home as described in this Rangers blog article.

Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer. You can still buy these beverages in the UK but it can be hard to find versions that are true to the traditional recipe.

One place where you can is a temperance bar in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. You can enjoy a number of root based drinks at Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar & Emporium is said to be Britain’s last original temperance bar. Their botanically brewed vintage-recipe beverages can purchased on line.

Not following the temperance root? The flower petals, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine.

In salads

Dandelion leaves are packed full of vitamins (A,C and K) and minerals (calcium, potassium, iron and manganese).

Their leaves are delicacies eaten mostly in salads and sandwiches. If you leave their taproot intact, you can harvest the leaves and they will grow more.

There are loads of salad recipes on the internet or in books. We simply add a few dandelion leaves to our salad, as you can see here:


Alternatively, try dressing your carefully washed dandelion leaves with a simple vinaigrette, before stirring through some pan fried shallots and smoked lardons, and finishing with quartered boiled eggs.

We liked this video on preparing dandelion leaves for a salad from Great Depression Cooking:

The leaves have a slightly bitter taste. If this is not to your liking, you could try a little horticultural blanching to make them more palatable. This is blanching their leaves by excluding light. You can do this for as little as two days, although if you wish to completely blanch them and achieve a harvest of white leaves, then cover for a longer period. Worth a try  to see how this affects the taste.

Another method of removing some of the bitterness, is blanching with hot water in the kitchen.  Just bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the dandelion greens; blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove and plunge into an ice bath. Remove from the ice bath and squeeze as much water from the leaves as you can; use as you would any cooked green.

We were also intrigued by this recipe for Dandelion Pumpkin Seed Pesto from Megan Gordon on Kitchn.

We have converted the recipe amounts for the UK, but you can find the US measurements on the Kitchn site.

Makes about 250 ml

190 ml unsalted hulled (green) pumpkin seeds
3 garlic gloves, crushed
6-7 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
1 bunch dandelion greens (about 2 cups, loosely packed)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 170°c. Pour the pumpkin seeds onto a shallow-rimmed baking sheet and roast until just fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Put the garlic and pumpkin seeds together in a food processor until very finely chopped, continue adding parmesan cheese, dandelion greens, and lemon juice and process continuously until combined. Stop the processor every now and again to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The pesto will be very thick after awhile then slowly pour in the olive oil and process until the pesto is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

dandelion with two flowers and a rosette of leaves, seen from above

Foraging and collecting dandelions

Like any wild plant, there are a few rules you need to stick to when collecting.

You must:

  • have permission from the landowner
  • clearly identify the plant.
  • ensure that what you are collecting is not a rare or endangered plant
  • only remove enough to allow the plant to continue to grow/seed.

Most dandelions in the UK are likely to be the bog standard Taraxacum officinale that pop up everywhere. If you are able, place a bucket on top of the plant(s) a couple of days before collecting to helps to reduce the bitterness of the leaves and collect the younger leaves from the centre of the rosette.

Cultivation

Dandelions are herbaceous perennial plants with a height and spread of up to 40 x 40 cm.

There are about 60 species and they bear white, yellow to orange flowers during spring and autumn. You can see some of the different flower types on this Wikipedia page.

Some varieties are grown commercially, mostly in southern Europe, especially France and Italy. There are around three cultivated varieties that can be sourced from the links below.

Taraxacum officinale – the bog standard dandelion. Available from Emorsgate seeds  and Wildflowers UK.

dandilion flower, bud and leaves

Thick-leaved dandelion, available from Chiltern Seeds. It is easy, vigorous and quick growing with large, thick, dark green leaves. It can be eaten or drunk as described above. For salads, a little horticultural blanching might be in order to make them more succulent plant by blanching the hearts either earthing up or tying the leaves together.

Taraxacum pseudoroseum available from Chiltern seeds. A dandelion with a difference! With this you can expect the usual rosette of green leaves, but unexpectedly it bears rather appealing, bicolored, fluffy flowers of pink with yellow centres.

Taraxacum rubrifolium available from Chiltern seeds. An unusual dwarf relative of the humble dandelion, it forms a small flat rosette of the deepest purple and has contrasting yellow dandelion flowers on short stems.

It is also possible to find other varieties from online sellers based in other countries. And when you are on holiday, you are allowed to bring five packets of retail seeds into the UK for your own use. For more details on importing plants and plant material check out this site.

Of course, some readers might have a problem with the import of foreign species of ‘weeds’ that might out-compete our own native plants. A huge number of garden plants were imported from abroad and some of those such as Rhododendron ponticum, have gone on to become invasive weeds.

As with anything you have on your land – plants or animals – you must not allow it to escape and cause harm.

Having said all that, here is a small selection of available seeds we thought were interesting:

Pissenlit à Cœur Plein amélioré yields an abundant crop without taking up much ground, and tends to blanch itself naturally, due to its clumping growth habit.

Pissenlit vert de Montmagny is a large-leaved, vigorous grower, which matures early.

Taraxacum albidum – very similar to the humble dandelion save for the creamy while flowers.

Not convinced?

If you do want to get rid of your dandelions, there are two options – chemical control and cultural control.

Chemical control

Why do the herbicide manufacturers concentrate on dandelions in the advertising? Probably because control can be achieved easily. There are a number of  products available including

lawn weed killers and Glyphosate based products. For information on weedkillers, check out the advice leaflet from the RHS.

Cultural controls

Techniques include:

  • excluding the light by mulching to a depth of 100mm or 4″ or more
  • removing by digging out – this can be done by using a fork to loosen the soil or in some cases the turf around the plant and slowly and carefully removing the whole plant intact

There are a number of specialist tools available for the job, including the one demonstrated in this video by ChrisFX.

Our woodchip path and alternative wheelbarrow

Taking on our plot during winter has meant we have had to cope with a lot of mud. So, we decided early on that we’d like to make a woodchip paths to create areas where we could walk without getting too muddy. Plus paths would help create definite areas within the plot.

One of the challenges was finding a supplier for the woodchip. Andrew rang several local tree surgeons but their woodchip was already spoken for. Luckily, he found a tree surgeon working on a neighbour’s willow tree who was only too happy to let us have the chipped tree. He even delivered it to the allotment site for us, there and then.

Garden Inspirations delivering a huge pile of woodchip to the allotment site

Then all we had to do was get the huge pile of woodchip from the gates to our plot (we are about the furthest plot from the gates!).

Andrew’s condition means that he wouldn’t be able to use a traditional wheelbarrow. We had been considering getting a pull along trolley for his mobility scooter for a little while. Then – just at the right time – we saw a small cart in Robert Dyas that looked perfect. It’s the Draper metal garden cart.

The Draper gardeners cart, filled with woodchip and attached to Andrew's scooter

One of the things that makes it ideal is the handle which fits perfectly to the back of the scooter. Having said that, we do use a bungee to hold it in place  between home and the plot, just to be on the safe side.

The tolley is sturdy – it says it has a load capacity of 150kg. It is also easy to manoeuvre because of its narrow wheelbase.

Of course, it was still hard work to get the woodchip to our plot. Luckily, our friends Richard (Anderson Landscapes) and Elisa (the Secret Garden) were on hand to help out. We are very grateful to them for their continued hard work.

Here’s a progress shot. You’ll notice that we’re laying weed suppressing membrane and that this goes under the path area.

Weed suppressing membrane was laid down before the woodchip

And finally, here’s the path.

A shot of our woodchip path, with weed suppressing membrane underneath

We plan to extend the path down along the furthest edge of the plot to allow easy access for the mobility scooter. And anyone else with wheeled transport.

Sandra pulling the trolley laden with woodchip and tools

Seed planting ruler

The shed we inherited from the previous plot holder(s) may have gone, but some of its contents live on.

One of the things we managed to save is this item:

The seed planting ruler rescued from the old shed

It’s a seed planting ruler, an articulated measuring instrument with holes at varying distances and information stating how far apart various vegetables should be planted.

Unfortunately, it was missing the dibber that goes through the holes and into the soil, marking where to plant the seeds.

So, Andrew made a new one, which he has tied on so that it doesn’t go missing. It’s even got my name on it!

The seed planting ruler with its new dibber

Now, we just have to persuade Pearl that it’s not a cat toy.

Pearl checks out the seed planting ruler to see if it's worth chewing