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

Getting a heated propagator for the greenhouse

Andrew in the greenhouse with a pot of seeds

It’s been a week since we sowed our first seeds in the greenhouse that our good friend Richard is kindly lending us.

It might be early days but so far there are no signs of life. We had a basic thermometer in the greenhouse and, even though the greenhouse has a tube  heater, we were worried that the temperature was dropping in the evenings and at night below what we needed to germinate our seeds.

On average, plants need a temperature of around 15-20 degrees centigrade to germinate, although some plants may have particular temperature requirements outside this range.

Andrew decided that we needed to raise the temperature under the seeds, so we went in search of a basic propagator. We didn’t want to spend too much money so went to a DIY store rather than a garden centre where we have found prices tend to be higher.

We ended up in Homebase where we found a Stewart essentials propagator. It doesn’t have a thermostat, but the instructions say that it should achieve a temperature of between 10-15 degrees centigrade above the ambient temperature.

We have set up a max/min thermometer with a probe in the propagator to see what temperatures we achieve. We’ll let you know how we get on.

In this video, we set up the propagator and sow some more seeds – including the pot black and rose bianca aubergines that Sandra won from Mr Fothergills.

We had a lot of fun making this video. Be sure to check out the out-takes at the end of the Video!

Sowing our first seeds

We don’t have a garden at Quest for Veg HQ, so we were delighted when our friend Richard offered us the use of his heated greenhouse. He even cleaned it out for us!


This gives us the opportunity to get going with plants that need a little bit of heat to start them off. We decided to begin  with a couple of varieties fo tomato from a packet of Mr Fothergills seeds from the front of the March edition of Grow Your Own magazine.

So here’s Andrew explaining to me how to sow my first tomatoes!

As a reminder, this is why we can’t start seeds on our windowsills:


 

Chitting potatoes – my top 5 questions answered!

Chitting is the process of causing potatoes to sprout before you plant them. But how do you chit and why do you need to do it in the first place?

Why chit?

Most gardeners chit their potatoes but you don’t absolutely have to. If you plant them straight into the ground, all being well, they will grow.

However, chitting allows the potato to develop strong shoots ahead of being planted. By placing the potato in the light, the shoots it develops will be sturdy and green, rather than the leggy white shoots that grow when the potato is placed in the dark.

So chitting gets the potatoes off to a good start and may give you an earlier crop.

How do you chit?

In the video, we mention removing all but two of the developing shoots. Not everyone does this.

The idea is that removing some of the shoots, is that having fewer stems prevents the plant from becoming overcrowded. There is less competition for water, nutrients and light, creating stronger plants that are less susceptible to pests and diseases. And more of the plant’s energy will go into creating a better crop of potatoes.

As with many things in gardening, whether you remove shoots or not may simply depend on what you learned with you first started to grow. So, this year we are going to try growing half our crop with all the shoots that develop, and half where we leave only two in place. We’ll let you know how we get on in a later blog.

Whatever way you go, when the shoots grow to between 1-2cm, they are ready to be planted out.

What if you set out your seed potatoes and some are the wrong way up?

They’ll still sprout. The plant is preprogrammed to know which way is up, so they’ll send out shoots which will seek to grow up. You may want to lift your potatoes while they’re chitting to check them for white shoots, and turn them the right way up.

Why use seed potatoes rather than just growing from potatoes bought in the supermarket?

Potatoes are susceptible to many viral diseases which can be carried over from one year to the next. This is why it is a good idea to buy seed potatoes.

When you buy seed potatoes, you are paying for certified crop. This means that you are buying named varieties grown in special conditions, and that they are inspected and tested to ensure quality and are then certified as disease free.

Potatoes grown for food are just not produced and stored in the same way. They may also have been treated with sprout inhibitors or to have been irradiated, which delays or eliminates sprouting. So, even if you can get them to sprout, you are likely to find that the plants don’t have the same vigor and/or produce a poor quality harvest.

Can you cut up your seed potato to create more plants?

You can although there is a risk of introducing disease through the cut surface. You can manage that by using an antifungal treatment – a light dusting of yellow sulphur can help (not too much).

If you decide to cut your potatoes, wait until you’re ready to plant them out. When you divide them, make sure that each piece has a couple of shoots (chits).

My seed potatoes have gone wrinkly. Does that mean they’re no good?

As long as they were not wrinkly before chitting, they should be fine. Seed potatoes can go wrinkly during the chitting process because the shoots begin photosynthesising. This involves giving off water and oxygen, and the potato shrinks but the skin does not, making them appear wrinkled. But the potato should still be good to plant out.

Pearl stakes her claim on the window sill

Pearl stakes her claim on the window sill

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#mygardenrightnow

This weekend we took part in the #mygardenrightnow garden bloggers meme.

Michelle Chapman of the Veg Plotting blog suggested that we all take a photo of ourselves in our garden (or allotment) at some point over the weekend of 4-5 March 2017. The idea was to show what everyone’s garden looks like at the end of winter.

So here we are on the Quest For Veg plot.

Andrew and Sandra posing with recently aquired herbs in front of the Quest for Veg raised beds

Posing with recently acquired herbs in front of our raised beds

 

Facing the other way with the empty plot behind us

To be honest, it was a flying visit because we had a big family birthday on the Saturday and a greenhouse to sort out on the Sunday (more of which later). So, we just popped in to check on our rhubarb and the half a dozen herb plants that we bought last weekend. And to pull faces at the one or two weeds daring to show themselves on our freshly weeded ground!

If you want to see what other participants were up to, go to Twitter or Instagram and search for #mygardenrightnow. Enjoy!

A weeding party and a tour of the plot

We held another weeding party to help us clear the second half of the plot. You can see how we got on here:

We are very grateful to:

The generous contribution of their time has meant that we have accomplished in a few short weeks, something that would have taken the two of us months and months. They were also able to step in when Andrew was tempted to overdo it so that he didn’t end up hurting himself.

A group shot of the Saturday morning weeding crew

The Saturday morning weeding crew

From here, we were planning to let the remaining weeds grow a bit and spray them with a glyphosate based herbicide. But we are now thinking that we will skip this step and simply cover the ground with a geotextile. This is because we don’t want to wait for the weeds to grow, we want to get on with it!

Here is a tour of the plot showing where we’ve got to at this point: