Category Archives: Gardening

A New Approach to Gardening

Fresh start

I know the weather this year has been frustrating for anyone in the UK trying to grow stuff. My frustration has been further complicated by my tendency to bite of more than I can chew with projects like these. Add to that my summer travels, and this year’s garden was a bit of a disaster.

So I’ve decided to get a fresh start. Yesterday I cleared out the raised bed and prepared a few trays and pots. The new approach: rather than trying to grow every vegetable that I’ve ever loved, ever, I’m going to try to master one vegetable at a time, and once that happens I’ll move on to the next thing.

My first vegetable: leaves. If I can successfully grow salad leaves, it would save me soooo much money. But which leaves? Well, one could argue that I’ve bit off more than I can chew again, but my theory is that all leaves will have the same watering schedule and maintenance requirements, I might as well experiment with a few and see what works best.

Salad seeds

Ok I know radishes aren’t a “leaf” but what the hell. I’ve put several varieties in the raised bed to see how they fare over winter: endives, perpetual spinach, rocket and some hearty “winter” leaves from Carla Tomasi. The rest are going in the pseudo-greenhouse: mizuna, parsley, Suttons “Leaf Salad” whatever that is, and more rocket (I’m curious to see how it fares under cover vs outside). There’s also an additional tray of the winter leaves that I started last week undercover – those have already sprouted, which gives me hope I can actually do this.

Autumn greenhouse


It hasn’t been an entire failure. I’ve had a few cucumbers, some chillis, and salad leaves earlier in the year. I also managed to salvage one pumpkin from the slugs, and there are a few ‘Brazillian Oval Orange’ aubergine coming in (a minor miracle in this climate).

Brazillian Orange Oval Eggplant


Most of the leaves I’m trying to grow I’ve grown before, so I’m hoping this little experiment will give me a confidence boost, plus some motivation to really do this WELL so I can move on to other more exciting vegetables. Of course, I’m doing this as we get into autumn and winter so who knows. But the sprouts in my first tray of leaves make me hopeful.

This Year’s Garden

My Tiny Plot

This weekend I feel like I’ve finally got this year’s gardening project under control. Last month, I started my gardening year as I always do: overly ambitious, and with a clear leaning towards veg not ideally suited for the UK climate: aubergine, peppers, tomatoes, chillies … with a few nods to chilly Britain in the form of cabbage, beetroot, potatoes and beans.

French bean! Oregano from Carl
Cabbage Kestrel Seed Potatoes

But maybe I’m not overly ambitious at all – I’d rather believe I’m just ambitious. Because so far, I haven’t let anything escape, whither, or die (with the exception of a few cabbage sprouts that got slugged last week). And I’m especially optimistic with the arrival of an early birthday present from my sister: a mini greenhouse!

New mini greenhouse thing

My 2012 Gardening Setup

I have a large garden, but most of it’s grass, and the actual space for growing stuff is pretty small. Also, I rent so I can’t really do much about that.

That said, I’m working with a small raised bed and a bunch of containers of various sizes. To help things along, I’ve now got the greenhouse, which I’m totally in love with. I set it up this weekend and the temperature difference is noticeable. It’s like a little warm cozy den. I almost want to put a chair in there and hang out in it.

The greenhouse has also inspired me to resurrected my DIY polytunnel for the raised bed. Mediterranean veg will be mine.

DIY Polytunnel

What I’m Growing

Or at least trying to grow. The list:

Tomatillo reaching for the sky

  • ‘Gold Medal’ Bicolour
  • ‘Costoluto Genovese’ Tall Vine
  • ‘Latah’ Very Early Red
  • Moneymaker (good ol’ reliable)


  • Brazilian Oval Orange
  • Rosa Bianca
  • Casper White

(I also tried “Striped Rose” and “Thai Yellow Egg” but those seeds fail to germinate.)



  • Serrano
  • Jalapeno
  • Orange Habanero
  • Canario Rocoto
  • Peppadew
  • Cheyenne
  • Pimienta Da Neude
  • Yellow Trinidad 7 Pot


Sugar Baby Watermelon

  • Parsley
  • Mint
  • Oregano (thanks, Carl!)
  • Dill
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Lavendar
  • Tarragon (thanks again, Carl!)

Everything else:

  • Tomatillo
  • Cucumber (‘Paris Pickling’)
  • Bell peppers
  • Cabbage
  • Perpetual Spinach
  • Beetroot
  • Radishes
  • Sugar baby watermelon
  • Pumpkin
  • Lettuce (thanks, Carla!)
  • Strawberries

Something I really like about this year’s garden is that it’s had so much input and inspiration from other people.

My sister gave me a mountain of seeds, including heirloom varieties of eggplant and tomatillo. Dan, who I met via Rachel through a Mexican cookery class at The Vegetarian Cookery School, sent me a heap of crazy chilli seeds to grow. Carl Legge has sent me oregano and tarragon from his own garden to continue growing here. And Carla Tomasi has sent me some fabulous summer and winter lettuce seed mixes which I fully intend to go to town with in the greenhouse.

Lettuce seed packets

How it’s all going

I’ve started most plants indoors and I seem to have covered almost every available windowsill with plant pots. The tomatillos and tomatoes are reaching for the sky. The aubergines are tiny, but show promise – today I thinned out these sprouts and planted them in bigger pots:

Eggplant to-be

The salad seeds from Carla have exploded into life:

Salad Leaves

The beetroot is looking pretty puny so far. I hope my installation of the DIY polytunnel will encourage them along:


Something is definitely eating my radishes:

Nommed on Radishes

Whatever it is doesn’t have the same taste in perpetual spinach. Here are some new sprouts, alongside what remains of last year’s spinach crop:

Perpetual Spinach

And there’s something about this cabbage sprout that makes me smile:


I’m fairly amazed that I’m already seeing French beans appear:

French bean!

And I’m a sucker for a gimmick. I bought a “grafted” bell pepper plant at Dobbies yesterday:

Grafted bell pepper

The pepper was a splurge. And I should point out one of my goals with this whole gardening stuff:

Saving money

I need to save money this year, not spend. And it would help me greatly if I could offset some of my grocery store spending with goodies from my own garden. This is where I’m hoping the greenhouse will really help. Even if I only filled it with lettuces and herbs, that would save me so much money. The trick will be keeping it producing on an ongoing basis, and producing ENOUGH food at that.

As a mostly vegetarian, I eat a ridiculous amount of vegetables. I especially seem to spend lots on salad and herbs. So one of my goals for this year’s garden was to grow a LOT of leafy veg, and to spend only where necessary.

So far I’ve managed to spend less than £20 – enough to buy some seed potatoes, salad seeds, the plastic cover for the polytunnel, some manure and of course, the vanity pepper. I’ve resisted the urge to impulse-buy pretty pots and “fun”-sounding seeds, opting to work with the seeds I have leftover from last year.

As far as growing enough lettuce to feed myself, well, I’m realising just how much space it would take to actually make that happen. I mean let’s face it, I could eat way more than this single pot of lettuce in one sitting:

Salad Leaves

But I’m going to go for it, which might mean getting clever with containers. To that end, this guy’s vertical garden is truly inspiring.

More pics of my garden progress on Flickr: Gardening 2012.

Sprouted Mung Beans

Mung Bean Sprouts

I recently heard about a web meme called the 52 Week Salad Challenge. The basic idea is that everyone who participates must grow or forage some salad stuff to eat every week of the year.

Well, anyone who reads SmarterFitter Daily knows that I love salads. Furthermore, I could use some encouragement in the gardening department. Last year’s garden wasn’t my best effort – I bit off more than I could chew. This year, I’m taking it one step at a time. That is, I’m not going to let myself grow anything until I’ve proved that I can keep my current set of plants alive.

I know I’m a couple weeks late with this salad challenge, but better late than never. I begin the challenge with something easy: mung bean sprouts. I’ve had a hankering for these ever since the start of Chinese New Year (I want to make egg fu yung) but these sprouts, especially when young, are delicious raw in salads. And they’re pretty brainless to grow:

  1. Take a container (a jar or a bowl works) and put in some mung beans, leaving at least enough space for the beans to quadruple in size (which they will di as they sprout)
  2. Fill the container with water and let the beans soak overnight
  3. Drain the soaked beans and rinse them
  4. Repeat the rinsing and draining process every 8-12 overs
  5. In a few days you will have sprouts!

(For more comprehensive instructions, read this: How to Sprout Mung Beans.)

Mung bean sprouts - they live!

But what of the salad? Sprouted mung beans have a very earthy flavour and take well to something with a bit of sweetness. So I put my honey mustard dressing to use and took some inspiration from this recipe for carrot and fennel salad.

Mung Beans Sprout Salad with Carrots and Fennel

My salad today was essentially:

  • 1 juilenned carrots
  • 1/2 fennel bulb finely sliced
  • 1 cup mung beans
  • a small handful each of coriander, chives, and basil, finely chopped (also from my “kitchen garden”)
  • ~1 Tbsp currants, soaked in boiling water for about 10 minutes
  • squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp honey mustard dressing
  • salt & pepper

Toss it all up together and that was lunch (with a bit of mackerel on the side – a nice partner for this salad).

This salad was pretty good but I’m looking forward to toying with some other variations. I want to try a raw version of Ottolenghi’s Carrot and Mung Bean Salad. And this carrot and mung bean salad with coconut and indian spices also appeals.

Misk Cooks is also sprouting mung beans and made a beautiful salad of cubed mango, dried diced Bing cherries, parsley, basil, jalapeño, and sprouted mung beans, all tossed in a light dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and… whoa… fizzy lemonade!

Misk may say I inspired her to sprout mung beans, but SHE’S inspired ME to start growing herbs again in my kitchen. So perhaps that will be my next post for the 52 Week Salad Challenge. That is, if they’re still alive by then.

Mung Bean Sprouts

Why won’t the garden grow?


I will tell you one reason: something keeps eating it. My poor little cilantro seedlings have been chomped to bits before they even had a chance. Same goes for my lettuce, rocket and Mizuna. So much for salad.

Worth saving?

Elsewhere, in the raised bed, I can’t explain my pathetically stunted French beans and jalapeno plant.

Pathetic French bean crop

The jalapeno has not grown a centimetre in the last two months, and the French beans have yielded a measly THREE beans. Where have I gone wrong?

Static jalapeno

My pickle dreams are being torn asunder – I don’t know who would want to eat this pathetic, yellowed, withered gherkin:

Pathetic cucumber

Even in the non-veg department, the leaves of my black-eyed susan are turning all purply-red, and the flowers are quick to turn white and shrivel to bits.

Leaves turning color - why?

The garden is giving me the blues. I was so distraught this weekend I had to pull some potatoes (albeit a tad early) just to reassure myself that I’m not a total failure. The pink fir spud warmed my downtrodden spirits.

Potatoes to cheer me up

I’m totally mystified by all my loser plants. The bug thing I get – and thanks to MiskMask for the natural insecticide recipe (1 part vinegar, 2 parts water, 1 tsp dish soap). I have sprayed what’s left and it has helped so far… I’ve also started some new lettuce seeds and will be sure to spray as soon as the seedlings break through.

Part of me wonders if the UK weather is to blame. It’s been VERY dry, a touch windy, and not terribly warm. Things seemed happier last year when I used my makeshift polytunnel during the early part of the season. But my (thwarted!!) desire for French beans this year (and hence, a tall structure to grow them on) meant no polytunnel for my raised bed.

Indoors, things seem to do better. I already have tomatoes coming in on my Latah tomato plant. Looking on the bright side…

Latah Tomato

Sometimes this garden baffles me

Veg bed looking paltry

This is only my second year with a proper garden, and I really feel like an amateur when I step outside and look at my paltry raised bed, where the only crop doing exceptionally well is the rocket that I never planted in the first place (stray seeds from last year, I suppose?).

The French beans, which had such a good start inside, now look frail and withered. Undernourished? Battered by the wind? I just don’t know.

The french beans are looking worse for wear

The perpetual spinach, which started well, is now yellowing and turning brown at the edges. Is this just a natural part of its life? Are they too crowded?

Why is the spinach turning yellow?

And for some reason, I have never been able to successfully grow sage. Maybe this plant is the culprit, depressing everything around it, except for the ever-hardy wild rocket that thrives behind it.

Why can't I grow sage?

Elsewhere, my tomatoes are looking a little yellow and forlorn (interestingly, the tomato I’m growing indoors is happy as can be). The ever wise Naomi suggests they’re undernourished. Time to get some plant food I think.

Tomato plant turning yellow - why?

The state of the radishes is no mystery; they’re clearly getting nommed on by the most notorious of garden pests.

Something's eating my radish The culprit

But not everything has shrivelled to bits. This is the second year with my container strawberry and raspberry plants, both of which have started to fruit.

Strawberries! Raspberry!

My salad leaves have been a huge success, particularly the mizuna.

Mizuna! More salad coming in

And of course, the rocket, which also made it to my parsley and dill tray. The miracles of nature!

More mystery rocket

It also looks like there will be lots of heritage potatoes this year. My roasting pan is ready and waiting.

Happy potatoes

Even these little spring onions, which I thought were goners, have sprung to life, perhaps just to prove their superiority to the neighbouring sage.

Hanging on for life

So, highs and lows, but it’s all highs really – this garden is a constant education. I still have a bunch of seedlings that need to be planted out – cucumber, melons, more tomato, onions. I’m sorta scared to move them but I know they’re getting a little cramped in their containers. And surely we’re past all worry of frost? (I don’t trust the weather in this country!) So, time to eat some rocket and make room in the raised bed. And time to buy some plant food.

Hanging Flower Baskets

Hanging baskets

I had a bit of the Sunday blues last weekend after an absolutely fantastic Friday and Saturday. Tim came for a visit and it’s always a joy to have people over to the cottage. For all of its peace and tranquility, such things are sometimes only as good as the people you share them with.

There was a lot of good food (Tim’s rhubarb and apple crumble a notable highlight), drink (Pimms of course and a delicious Pouilly Fume), walking (a sheepish jaunt around Bibury and the River Coln), talking (about getting free) and film-watching (Angles & Demons oh my), but one of the more notable highlights took place in the garden.

Hanging baskets

Tim suggested that the cottage needed a splash of colour, and that a couple hanging flower baskets would be a good start. This is something I’ve often thought about doing – I’ve even looked at the hanging plants at the garden center. But then I get struck by analysis (and price tag) paralysis and go home with my measly pack of seeds of compost or whatever. But per Tim’s encouragement I dragged him with me to Dobbies and enlisted his help picking out a couple of baskets and some flowers to go in them.

Hanging baskets

So what do we have here. Lots of Violas, Arabis Rosea, Sedum Autumn Stonecrop, and Hutchinsia Crystal Carpet, most of which I hadn’t heard of before. My gardening efforts have so far been concentrated on the veg patch, but there might be room in my repertoire for flowers, too. I find I’m especially drawn to interesting grasses and colourful leaves. The only downside is that with these two hanging baskets, the entry to the cottage now seems to be crying for a whole lot more.

Begging for more

Another highlight from the trip to Dobbies was Tim’s generous gift of these Fiskars Weed Pullers, a product that does what it says with intention and anger. My lawn is fulllll of weeds, big knarly ones, and we had a cathartic time pulling out the worst of them after I got home. A very impressive gardening tool:


So, many thanks to Tim for enriching my garden (and my weekend) with his inspiration, encouragement and gadgetry. Sunday blues be damned – when I look around at where I live, what I have, and the people I have to share it with, I have all the reasons in the world to be happy.

Wow, and to think I said all that without barely a mention of food. Could I be expanding my horizons a bit? And if I’m ever in doubt, I need only watch this ridiculously cute lamb moment from our walk in Bibury to lift my spirits:

Garden Update: Come Rain And Shine

Rain at last

The few plants living outside enjoyed a welcome dose of rain last night and this morning. Everything is looking a little more alive.

I’ve already been making use of my humble herb garden. I’m all about the fresh oregano lately, especially in salads.


Meanwhile, the rocket and spinach are coming along, though not sure what to make of the reddish/pink veins in my rocket. Maybe that’s just the variety?

Rocket Perpetual Spinach

I also have radishes on the go.


Inside is sprout central: French beans, tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, cucumber, melon, serranos, jalapenos, pepperoncinis… have I gone overboard?

Seedlings galore Yellow onions on their way

The French beans are looking ready to go outside, but I’m worried – we still have very cool mornings, almost bordering on frosty. I would hate to lose my precious beans to a cold snap. What do you do? How do you know when it’s ready to plant out seedlings? Yes, I could just read my copy of Joy Larkom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables, but if I can learn from you folks, all the better.

Garden Update: End of an Era

Clay oven no more

A few months ago, something sad happened on the way to the clay oven: it imploded.

Clay oven implosion

What can I say? It was version one. And it was a wet winter. But this was supposed to be a garden update, so why bring up the sad demise of the clay oven?

Well, after months of letting it languish in a pile in the garden, I finally made peace and relocated the oven to the potholes in the cattle yard. Still, what remained was a table and a whole lotta bricks, so I decided to use them for good.

The bricks went towards putting in a small raised bed against a ne’er used gate along the garden wall.

Garden situation

The clay oven table is now supporting trays for rocket, salad and herbs.

For herbs and such

I’m pleased with the oven’s rebirth. And it really IS a rebirth. Rocket is already sprouting in the trays, as is the perpetual spinach in the raised bed, and I’ve gotta believe the garlic and radishes are making headway beneath the soil in the new brick-lined bed.

Meanwhile, indoors, I’ve got loads of sprouting going on: cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, yellow onions, spring onions, purple sprouting broccoli, lettuces… some are just starting to show signs of their first “true” leaves.

Not all joy

Now, I wait. Everything looks a bit… empty at the moment. I’m looking forward to the beds filling up with greenery and yummy veg.

I’ve never been so excited about food waste

New compost bin

I just installed my first ever compost bin. And then I mowed the lawn.

How thrilling it was to throw my first haul of grass clippings into the bin! Add to that some twigs and soil, and my composter is ready for its real meal: food waste!

For a long time I thought composting would be too problematic – I live in a marshy area that’s prone to rats and other rodents. But then my neighbour told me that the council sells discounted compost bins. A little interweb research uncovered the allegedly “rodent proof” Green Johanna, sold by Wiltshire council for a bargain £24 delivered.

I’m not exactly thrilled about having a big hunk of plastic on my lawn. And my, what a big hunk of plastic it is – the Green Johanna is massive. And massively ugly. I’m going to have to get creative with the shrubbery to hide it from view.

However, I AM thrilled about composting. As a vegetarian, indeed, as an eater of food, I throw away a LOT of food waste, from onion skins to apple cores to carrot peels. Throw away no more! I can now compost it! And I’m amazed by all of the things that are suitable for composting:

From the kitchen: Fruit, vegetables, dairy products, fish, shellfish, meat,bones, coffee grounds with filter, teabags, eggshells, bread, sauce, soup,egg cartons and so on.

From the garden: Grass, leaves, twigs and branches.

And no more buying compost at the garden centre, I hope.

Composting is all about the interplay between nitrogen- and carbon-rich matter which allows waste to be broken down into healthy, nutritious compost suitable for feeding plants in the garden. There’s a knack to getting the balance right between nitrogen-rich “green” stuff (veggie scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings) and carbon-rich “brown” stuff (leaves, straw, shredded paper, etc). We’ll see if I have the knack. (I just hope I don’t have any rats!)

Sowing the Spuds of Love: Congrats to Laura!

Seed potatoes

The random number generator hath spoken, and the winner of the Heritage Seed Potato giveaway is lovely Laura (@shoozographer) who says

Wiggly Wigglers are fab indeed – I’ve bought loads from them, mainly seeds, bokashi composting bran, and flowers for gifts.

“Bokashi composting bran” – now that’s something I’ve never heard of before, though perhaps it will be old hat in a few months time? I recently ordered a “Green Joanna” Compost bin through Wiltshire Council at the bargain price of £24 (shipping included). Food digestion in my garden – seems kinda like a no-brainer for a vegetarian.

Thank you to everyone who participated with such thoughtful comments, including this inventive idea from Simon Beaumont for a potato-based pizza base!

My favourite thing to do with potatoes is make them into pizza bases! Just boil up a good handful and when soft mash, then add enough butter and flour until it all forms together into a ball. At this point add in garlic, herbs or anything you fancy to spice it up a bit. Then roll it out into a buttered baking tray, cover in tomato and/or garlic paste and then add whatever you like as toppings.

Well, that’s certainly going on my to-try list when the spuds arrive. Who knows, maybe by then I’ll have rebuilt my recently imploded clay oven.

Speaking of spuds, my own Pink Firs have been tenderly sown into their destination pot. But I’m still left with way more Pink Firs and Donbar Rovers than I need. Anyone keen for a seed swap? (Ahem, Genevieve?)

Pink Firs in the Pot