Monthly Archives: February 2020

  • Grow at Home: Watercress

    watercress_leaves

    Watercress is an indigenous plant known for its food value since Roman times.  The crop was introduced to commercial cultivation in England in 1808. Up until the 1960's it was widely grown commercially in the South West of England and transported daily to cities far and wide.  One of the train routes to London becoming known as 'The Watercress Line'.

    Watercress (Nasturtium officianale) is green and noted for its distinctive peppery, mustard-like flavour.  It is packed full of nutrients and vitamins including vitamin C, folic acid, iron, vitamin A and calcium. It is probably best known for its traditional use as a classic ingredient for soup but can be added to any dish in place of spinach.  it can also be used in a salad or added to sandwiches for the ultimate hit of fresh taste and flavour.

    Aspect

    Contrary to popular belief, Watercress does not need to be grown in water.  It will grow anywhere that is moist.

    As long as your watercress plants are kept well watered they will thrive in a container using  good quality compost.  A Bamboo Pot and Saucer would be ideal.  Keep the pot sat in water. To prevent the soil becoming stagnant  flush the pots heavily with fresh water once or twice a week. Mixing charcoal with the compost will also help to keep things fresh.

    Sowing Watercress

    Watercress can be bought as plug plants.  However, growing it from seed is easier than many people imagine and well worth a try.

    Outdoor crops should be sown directly into the pot you wish to grow them in during March or April.  Or once average day temperatures reach 8-15°C.  You should see germination within 14 days. There is no need to cover watercress seeds, they will sprout happily simply scattered on the surface of the compost.

    For a constant supply of fresh leaves, further sowings can be made through spring and early summer

    Micro watercress growing

    You can also treat watercress as a 'micro seed' surface sowing in  trays pre-saturated with water - try Microgreen Growing Mats in a Bamboo Seed Tray . Keep the trays topped up with  water and harvest watercress microgreens when plants are 5cm (2") high or so.

    Harvesting

    Traditionally April and May is believed to be the best time to collect the crop, although Watercress can be harvested at anytime that the ground is not frozen.

    Watercress doesn't store well and is best eaten really fresh so pick just as much as you need.  If you have a surplus of fresh leaves through summer, don't let them go to waste - make soup for the freezer Rabbits and guinea pigs eat it and will enjoy this tasty treat whenever you have some to spare!

  • Grow At Home: Mushrooms

    Mushrooms_in_basket

    Mushrooms are turning into big business in both the UK & the USA.

    Sales and prices are up, and growers are struggling to keep up with demand.  This is thought to be due to an increasing number of people moving to a plant-based diet.  Mushrooms are an obvious meat alternative. Even if you don't favour a plant based diet though, mushrooms are fat-free, low calorie, low sodium and gluten free, delicious, nutritious and available all year round.  So the reasons are stacking up to try and grow your own.

    Button mushrooms remain the most commonly eaten variety, But demand is picking up for specialty varieties, such as shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms.

    Growing mushrooms

    Despite being a much used ingredient, mushrooms are not an everyday crop in your average garden.  If you are nervous of wild foraging but long to harvest mushrooms then growing your own gives the reassurance of getting safe, delicious mushrooms without the chance of the poisonous or mind altering effects.

    Mushrooms are perennial organisms that can live for decades, and have two distinct parts.
    Underground, a web of threadlike hyphae known as mycelium cover an often huge area, absorbing nutrients and powering the fungi.
    Above ground is the visible fruit which is the reproductive organs - the bit we eat.

    Which Variety of Mushrooms to Grow

    If you have been given a mushroom growing kit for Christmas then the choice of which mushroom to grow has already been made for you.  However, if you are planning your own mushroom growing adventure then what variety do you choose?

    If you're a beginner, start out by growing Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)  The Oyster Mushroom mycelium grows vigorously and will survive a wide range of temperatures so it is easy to grow.

    Another great choice is Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinula edodes). These are both easy to grow and taste great and will save you ££££s at the supermarket as they are often sold dried and a little more pricey than your ordinary button mushroom.

    Your methods and materials are other factors to consider. You can grow mushrooms on manure, wood, straw, paper or compost.  Certain species do better on certain substrates, and matching them up is essential to a good crop.

    Timing

    Plant: all year round but temperature should be between 10° and 18° Beyond this the key consideration is when you are planning on starting and harvesting. Different mushrooms fruit in different seasons, so matching your mushroom to its preferred season will give you the best success.

    Method

    There are different ways of buying the spawn but the basic steps for growing mushrooms are the same for all

    1. Choose your substrate - dependent on your mushroom variety.
    2. Add the mushroom spawn - known as inoculation.
    3. Moisten and keep at the correct temperature for the mycelium to start to grow.
    4. Change the environmental conditions to trigger fruiting - usually by dropping the temperature and increasing the humidity.
    5. Wait until fruits are big enough and harvest.

    Spawn

    You can get the spawn in a number of forms.

    • In plugs or impregnated dowels - hammer these directly into a piece of wood.  You can not use old wood.   Cut the logs to use fresh (within 6 weeks) from disease-free healthy living trees. Logs should be around 50 cm or 1 metre in length with a diameter from 10 to 30 cm.  The type of mushroom chosen dictates how wide your log needs to be and how many plugs you'll need. The instructions that come with your plug will guide you.
    • Grain - sprinkle this onto manure or between the damp pages of a book.   (A great way to recycle your Yellow Pages!) before wrapping in a plastic bag until the mycelium start to grow.
    • Blocks  - planted in the ground, particularly good for under trees.  These can be planted round the roots of trees or under a patch of turf in your lawn.  You will not be able to mow there and it should be an area where there is little traffic as the mycelium don't like compacted ground.
    • Mushroom growing kits - these are a great way to start and come with the appropriate growing medium.  Often this is on straw which has been pre-sterilised so that you know the only fungus you are growing is the one you planned to grow.  It may even be pre inoculated with the mushroom spawn or you may have to add this yourself before moistening and keeping warm until the mycelium have started to grow.

    Where to Grow

    Mushrooms_two_whiteMushrooms grow in the shade in buckets or shallow planters, in the green house or the shed, or outside in the lawn, beneath trees or on the edge of the compost heap.

    Many people think that mushrooms need to be grown in the dark.  This is a myth and the truth is that mushrooms lack the ability to use energy from the sun. They do not have chlorophyll so are not green plants.  Therefore they can grow in the dark or light as their energy does not come from the sun but from its growing medium.   They do however, need to remain moist, not wet or dry, at all times and it is easier to achieve this in a shady spot.

     

    Mushrooms are a great source of non animal protein, and one of the only foods that you can eat happily for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  They are very low in calories and a great addition to many recipes.  They are also a lot of fun to grow so well worth trying.  For a tasty way to enjoy them why not try this dish?

    War Time Mushrooms

    Cut up one clove of garlic and add it to a frying pan of melted butter.  Cut up a large handful of your home grown mushrooms and add to the pan.  Fry until brown, tip onto a piece of toast and eat hot.  Simple but delicious.

  • Grow at Home: Winter Salads

     

    winter_salad_in_soil

    Many people are surprised to know that you can grow salad in winter very successfully without needing too much space or even a greenhouse.  A sheltered spot and a little bit of care and attention and you can enjoy a healthy harvest all year long.

    Although we tend to associate salad with long summer days, there's nothing like the taste of a fresh green salad at any time of year.  Often winter lettuce is actually slightly sweeter than the summer varieties.  Choose hardy varieties of your favourite summer lettuce or try something with a bit of heat such as a mustard spinach.

    A few healthy plants will probably be all you need to see you through so that you can pick leaves as and when you need them.  Vigoroot Balcony Garden will give you strong healthy plants in even the smallest space.  It will also allow you to cover your crop up if the weather turns really nasty.

    Sowing Salad

    For a continuous supply, sow a few seeds every four weeks.  Some lettuce varieties, such as 'Arctic King’ and other winter salads are fine to grow all year round.  They just need a little extra protection during colder months. The cut-and-come-again crops are loose-leafed and you can pick a few leaves from the plants every few days.

     Ideally sow seed up until mid November- earlier rather than later to avoid frost damage to seedlings.  But if you’ve missed the chance to sow, then  supermarket bought trays of living salad will do well if planted now.  Easy Seedling Tunnels or a Baby Victorian Bell Cloche will protect young plants during cold weather, especially frosty nights.

    Sow short lines of winter lettuce seed every couple of weeks or so. Water well afterwards; winter rainfall will probably be enough to keep plants watered. Thin out plants as they start to crowd each other – you can eat the thinnings in a sandwich!

    Protection

    Keep seedlings warm and watered and choose a sheltered area if possible.  To protect your plants from cold winds as sharp drop in temperature may kill off seedlings and young plants.

    Keep an eye on the weather and protect crops with a cloche or cover overnight.  Remove the covering in the day to keep a good circulation of air and avoid rotting.

    If you have to leave the cover over the plants, remove it every day or so and check them.  The soil may need a little forking over to avoid it getting compacted and wet. A Vigoroot Easy Table Garden is ideal for growing winter salads and can be moved to the sunniest spot and the cover removed easily on warmer days.

    Harvest

    Winter lettuce crops can be used as and when the plants are big enough. Varieties that produce a firm head are best left to fully mature.  Although a taking a leaf or two once in a while won’t hurt. The cut-and-come-again varieties should be picked regularly after they are about 2in high. They will produce more leaves if you pick some.  Or you can allow the plants to grow to about 8in and cut the whole head off, leaving a stump – a new plant should soon re-sprout. 

    Whatever you grow it will give you a little reminder that Summer is never far away!

  • Grow at Home: Nuts! Whole Hazelnuts!!

    hazelnut_catkinsHazelnuts come from hazel trees which are a great choice for a garden.  They are fairly small and will grow successfully in most temperate areas.  The bees love both catkins and flower so if you are keen to encourage wildlife then they are a good option.
    Hazels like a moist but free draining soil, in a bright, sunny situation.  The production of hazelnuts is likely to be better if your tree is sheltered.

    They naturally grow as multi-stemmed bushes  - you often see them in hedgerows.  So for the home gardener they can provide useful screening  and shelter for tender plants.   If you really want nuts though, open-centre trees with a single main stem will allow more light to get in and  improve both the quality and the quantity of nuts.

    Buying a tree

    If you want to buy a hazel tree then they are most commonly bought as bare-rooted saplings, although pot grown plants are also available.  They can be put into the ground at any time of year, but it is best to plant during the dormant period in winter.  Make sure that the soil is not frozen or water-logged and plant following the instructions further down.

    Growing from seed

    If you can find someone who has a hazel tree then you should be able to get a ready supply of nuts which have the seed inside.  Hazelnuts come in clusters surrounded by husks.  Simply pick the nut out of the husk.

    Separating those that will grow from those that may not is easy.  Take your nuts and put them in a bucket of water. Select only those that sink and discard the ones that float.  The ones that sink are more likely to grow and give you healthy seedlings.

    Planting seeds

    Take a plant pot and place some stones in the bottom for drainage then cover them with a shallow layer of sand.  You can just put your nut in with its shell but it will make germination easier if you nick the shell with a file first.  To do this carefully file through in a small spot on the top side of shell.  Just enough to penetrate the shell without damaging the flesh of the seed inside.  Once done, mix a handful of your nuts with the same amount of horticultural sand and put them into your pot.  Cover very carefully with something like wire mesh otherwise you are sure to lose the lot to mice or squirrels.  They love a hazelnut!   Put the pot in the shade and prepare to forget about it until early Spring.

    Start checking the seeds in late Feb/ early March.  If they have germinated then it is time to either transfer them to pots or plant them out in the garden.

    If using a pot then fill it with compost and put two seeds in each at about 2-3cm deep.

    For outdoor sowing, you can just scatter the seeds at around 400 per square metre. The seeds must be pressed into the soil - so use a roller or an old scaffold board to do this before covering the bed in horticultural grit.

    Cover the bed or pots once again with some mice proof netting or wire mesh until plants are strong enough to withstand mouse attack (around 15cm tall)

    Growing

    hazelnut_on_tea_towelAs with all young trees, it is important to keep them weed free so they don't have to fight for light and nutrition.   Once established, use a Haxnicks Tree Mat around the trunk to keep weeds away.  Remember to water regularly too as they establish their root system.

    Your patience so far should now be rewarded as Hazel trees can reach 40cm in one year. It is best not to move them yet though. They should not be moved to their final position until they are 2 years old.

    So, if they are OK for space - about 10cm around them - then leave them another year before you transplant them.  Keep them fed as well during their second year and you will get a healthy, robust plant.

    Planting your tree

    Whether you have bought a tree or grown it from seed prepare the site by clearing away any weeds or grass.  Then make a hole big enough to comfortably take the root ball. Place your sapling in the hole being careful to plant to the same depth as it was in the pot or bed.  Firm the soil.

    If you require a hedge, plant new trees roughly 2m apart, depending on the variety and how dense you want the hedge.

    Protect the young trunk with a StrimGuard when mowing or using a strimmer near it.

    Pollination

    Pollination of hazelnuts is tricky.  It is best to plant two different - compatible - varieties, which are known to pollinate each other.  If you got your nuts from someone local then this could solve the problem as they are wind pollinated over a distance of around 50m.  An alternative is wild hazel bushes which will work too.  

    Hazels bear male catkins and small, less conspicuous, red-tipped female flowers separately on the same tree.  Hazels should be self fertile as a result but, due to flowering times generally not overlapping, this is usually not the case.

    Don't let the Squirrels get your Nuts!

    You will probably have to wait until they are around 2m high, in around another 2 to 3 years, for your first crop of hazelnuts.  Harvest in late September–October once the leaves and burrs starting turning brown..

    You might wish to let the squirrels have the hazelnuts the first year.  After this though you should protect them with a Fruit Tree Protector from early summer as the squirrels take them before they are ripe.

    The burrs will mostly fall to the ground naturally, but a few may need to be picked.  Crack open the nuts, remove them from their shells and place them in a single layer in a warm, airy position to dry for a couple of days. You can store them and eat them raw at this point or roast them. Roast for 20-30 mins at 180º moving them around regularly to prevent them from burning.  

     

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