What did I do wrong in the vegetable garden!? Part 2

Part 2 Following on from part 1,What did I do wrong in the vegetable garden? Half the battle is finding out what we did wrong! This article should help all the problems you had with your vegetable seedling and hopefully you’ll get it right next time!!

Potting on

The next stage things can go wrong is when transferring seedlings to a larger pot.

The first reason plant may struggle is by leaving them far too long in a seed compost. Seedlings should be potted on well before they really start to compete with each other or exhaust the minimal nutrient supply in the potting media. This can be overcome by sowing directly into multi-purpose compost and thinning out all but the strongest plants. However multi-purpose may not have suitable drainage or water holding capabilities that the seeds need to germinate.

Seedlings should be transferred once they have formed their first true leaves. Each plant as it first pokes its head out of the soil will produce one or two leaves depending on the type of plant, these are known as the cotyledon or the seed leaf. The majority of crops are dicotyledons, that is they have two seed leafs but grasses, such as maize or sweetcorn are monocotyledons or single leaf plants. The seed leaves often have a very even shape which is in contrast to the first true leaves which are often more characteristic of the adult plant.

These seed leaves can be useful when potting on as they act as ‘handles’ in which to more the emerging plant. Plants can easily be damaged at this stage but the bonus with using the seed leaves rather than holding the stem or the pushing a plant up by the roots is that these leaves have already done their job and it doesn’t really matter if they come off. They act a bit like an umbilical cord for a human or an egg white a hen giving the seedling a start in life by photosynthesising just enough to produce the first true leaves. Once they have done their job they are surplus to requirements.

Step by step – Re-potting using the seed leaf.

  1. Hold the plant by the seed leaf
  2. Using a pencil tease the seedling out of its pot
  3. Replant into larger pot using a good quality peat free potting compost (not seed compost)

Dampening off

Dampening off refers to a number of fungal problems that can effect seeds and seedlings grown in pots. Sometime seedlings just won’t germinate and at other times they will seem to be doing fine but the plant mysteriously keels over and dies. Tell tale signs are a wet soil and/or a thinning of the stem at the soil line.

Like most fungal problems excess water, or more importantly persistent damp rather than wet, or bad circulation of air can exacerbate the problem.

Nutrient deficiencies

Inadequate nutrients can lead to all kinds of problems for young and established plants. If the soil or potting media is not adequate for the growing plant it will be more prone to pests and diseases and may struggle to become established. Yellowing of the leaves, spindly growth, burnt looking leaves can all be symptoms of inadequate nutrition and the first thing you have to ask if a plant is struggling is, ‘how healthy is the soil?’

You can top dress with compost and feed plants (see ‘Grow your food for free’) to deal with this imbalance of nutrients but if you have a problem soil you may have to count your losses for this year and spend time improving it for next year.

Lime soils

Overly lime or alkaline soils can lock up nutrients a plant would otherwise take up. This can often be seen as a failure for a plant to thrive or a yellowing of the leaves between the leaf veins (a condition known as interveinal chlorosis). Chosing the right plants will help as will balancing out the soil condition with plenty of organic mater

Some plants which do well in a lime soil but struggle in an acid soil

Cabbages (and all cabbage family)



Celery, carrots (and most carrot family)

Plants which may struggle in lime but do well in acid soil





Acid soil

Acid soils have similar problems and again adding compost or similar bulky organic matter will help. Choosing the right plants will really help but if it is too acidic you should aim to improve the soil overtime.

Removing the top soil

First time allotment holders often remove the top layer of weeds and couch grass in order to remove competition and give their plants a fighting chance. In doing all too often they also remove the healthy top soil robbing their plants of nutrients. Whenever possible the soil should be worked when it is not too sticky or wet and as much of the top soil should be knocked from the weed roots as possible. If it is already too late for this then add plenty of compost or farm yard manure or add some pelleted chicken manure when you sow or plant out.

Lack of Time

At times even with the best of intentions life can have a habit of getting in the way of growing and we may simply not get the time to put the effort in needed for a productive plot. One year a broken wrist right at the wrong time of year meant my plot resembled the jungles of South America rather than the gardens at Wisley. There is little you can do in these cases other than try and get help, clear the weeds and plant or sow what time allows. Although it may go against the grain you can always buy in seedlings or even ask friends of family or on websites such as freecycle or justfortheloveofit.org if anyone has spare seedlings so you can catch up.  Cabbages can be planted out right up until late summer and onions and broad beans can be planted very late (October, early November) for an overwintering crop.

If you know time is going to be an issue you can always cover some of a plot for a year or plant perennials, such as fruit bushes, rhubarb or perennial salads (sweet cicely, Siberian purslane) that need less attention. Planting through mypex or similar mulches can also help with weeds as can growing ground cover plants such as squashes and nasturtiums or sowing a green manure. Heavy soils can benefit from having a deep rooted green manure such as Alfalfa in for a year or more so if you have a baby on the way this can be a way of keeping the plot alive whilst your attentions lay elsewhere.

Better luck next year!

I may not have covered all the problems you may encounter but hopefully this will give you some idea of some of the things that can go wrong. I always console myself in the fact that even some of the most established gardeners have ‘I will get it right next year’ as their motto.

What did I do wrong in the vegetable garden!? Part 1

So just what did I do wrong in the vegetable garden!? Some years, try as we might, doing everything by the book, things seem to conspire against us. At other times our plants either fail to germinate at all or have got off to a good start then all of a sudden they just wither and die without warning. Of course pests and diseases can be an issue but these are covered elsewhere on the web. Instead here I’ll try and address some of the things we may have done wrong ourselves and how we might get it right next year.

Seeds not germinating

There are countless reasons why your seeds may not germinate with temperature, water and viability being the major three.

Where are all the crops!?

Seeds too old/not viable

Always check the sow by date on the back of the pack before you sow. If they are saved seed look up how long the seed should last (there is a handy chart in my book, Grow your food for free, published by Green Books. Even if the seed is out of date you can do a quick germination test by putting a 10 seeds on a wet piece of paper towel and counting how many sprout. If you have 5 sprouting then you can expect 50% germination, just 1 and only 10% will germinate.

Wet or cold soil

Early this year (2013) we had a very late spring, it was cold then wet and pretty miserable. If the soil is too wet or too cold, seeds can fail to germinate and eventually rot. To prevent overly wet soil, plenty of compost should be added at the time of planting. Although the composting material is usually under the area you sow into, creating a bean trench can be enough to loosen and aerate the soil and prevent rotting.

Black plastic sheeting can heat the soil up a degree or two and this can aid germination as can sowing into a cloche. If a packet says ‘sow March’ but the soil temperature is near to freezing in March then nothing will germinate. I took the very useful chart below from an obscure website . It illustrates why things like Aubergines need the extra heat of a green house or heated propagator.

0-25 ° Cabbage lettuce 5 ° +
0-29 ° Crisphead lettuce 5 ° +
10-19 ° Celeriac
Celery (green)
15 °
12+ ° Sweet corn
French bean
Runner bean
15 °
5-32 ° Broad bean
Broccoli / Calabrese
Brussels sprouts
8 ° +
13 ° + Courgette
Cucumber (ridge)
15 ° +
15 ° + Pepper (capsicum) 21 °
7 ° + Beetroot
Spinach beet
10 ° +
7-21 ° Chinese cabbage
12 ° +
18 ° + Celery (golden self blanching)
21 ° +
21 ° + Aubergine
Cucumber (greenhouse)
21-25 °

Indoor sowings or using a heated propagator can give plants a good start and ensure an even germination. Plants can go through what’s known as planting ‘check’ when they seem to struggle not long after re-planting. Most will bounce back but it is a good idea to harden off seedlings before planting them out.

Hardening off

To harden off a seedling, put it outside during the day and bring it in at night for around 2 weeks before planting in its final position. Alternatively start plants off in a cold frame, opening the frame in the day and closing the top at night.


I may be acting like an old man by repeating this story but it does always spring to mind when I think about problems with seed sowing. While planting peas and beans on my Bristol allotment I was dismayed to find very few of them germinating. I was at a loss to what was going wrong. I soon found my culprits in the nearby population of large, intelligent birds, such as magpies and crows. They would watch me sow each seed, memorise its whereabouts before swooping down for an easy free meal. After that I decided to sow my beans in the safety of my bay window before planting them out as seedlings. You could also net the seeds to prevent birds swooping in. In my experience nets are far more effective than putting up ‘bird scarers’ such as old CDs or bits of foil. Mice and rats can also be problematic with larger seeds and if yours have vanished look for tell-tale droppings.

Compacted Soil

Broad leaf plantain can be a sign of overly compacted soil. All seeds will find it hard to germinate in this kind of ground but peas and carrots will especially struggle.

Clumpy soil

If the soil is made up of large clumps the roots cannot make contact with the soil surface. If this happens a plant won’t get the nutrients it needs and it will wither and die. Clumps can form from working the ground when it is too wet or from insubstantial cultivation. Clumps should be broken up with a spade, the back of a fork or with a garden claw. Again add plenty of organic matter to ensure the soil is aerated and has a workable texture.

Crop Common reasons for no germination
Peas, Beans and Corn Compacted soil, birds or small mammals eating seed, wet soil, cold soil (corn)
Carrot Compacted soil, old seed
Lettuce Slugs, chunky soil preventing root contact
Squashes Seed rotting in wet soil, Slugs eating seedlings
Tomatoes, Aubergines, Chilli Too cold, seed sown too deeply
Cabbage Seed sown too deeply, Soil not properly cultivate (too chunky or compacted)

Planted too deeply

If you have no frame of reference then who’s to say how deeply something should be sown? It is easy for new growers to bury seed far to deeply making it have to work that little bit too hard in order to push its emerging shoots through the soil. To prevent this as a rule of thumb a seed should be planted no more than two to three times its size. Some smaller seeds won’t need covering at all but a dusting of soil or compost sometimes helps.


Eating Cordyline australis, (Cabbage palm, Torbay palm)

As a forager I am always looking for new foods in everyday plants.  It came to my mind recently that Eating Cordyline australis, (Cabbage palm, Torbay palm), might not be such a strange thing to do.

Cordyline or the Cabbage palm is a common garden plant originating from New Zealand. It can be found far from it’s native land growing in the South of England in municipal beds and the occasional garden. Some love it, some hate it. Having spent a bit of time living in Devon I grew to love this plant. It grew right across Torbay in the parks and gardens of Torquay and Paignton. There was a certain snobbery from more inland Totnesians for it’s down at heal neighbours in the English Riviera along with some of it’s plants, including this one. However, growing up in landlocked Northampton and not experiencing foreign holidays the palm was a symbol of the closest we would get to the exotic – the English coastline!

The exiting thing about the Torbay palm is it has an edible heart, a bit like an globe artichoke. The cordyline ‘heart’ consists of the growing tip at the base of the apical leaves. If you cut this off and then remove the leaves you are left with the heart, it should be about an inch or two long and be white tinged with a little green. I found it too bitter to eat raw so cooked it in three changes of water and then roasted it with some spices – see recipe below.

Cordyline tip

Gathering cordyline hearts

Finding the hearts of cordylines can be a tricky business. Cutting down those growing in city parks and in municipal planting schemes is considered criminal damage and you can be prosecuted. However, gardeners are always getting rid of them and may be willing to give you a couple of growing tips. Alternatively look on the the compost heaps of large gardens as you may find one or two. If you have one in your garden they will grow back from the base when cut down, this is best down in the spring. Cutting down this way should encourage a multi-stemmed plant so you can have one to replace your plant and the rest to eat!

Roasted cordyline hearts.



Himalayan Balsam – Impatiens glandulifera – food for free – Dave Hamilton

After finding out that Japanese Knotweed was edible (use the young shoots as you would rhubarb) I began a quest to find out what other invasive weeds could end up on the dinner plate. I came across a German man called Peter Becker who it seems shares some of my passion for eating invasive species.  Amongst other things he had found some edible uses for Himalayan Balsam, a plant which is choking out a lot of the native plants along river banks in Bristol.  I emailed him and received this reply –

Impatients glandulifera is slightly toxic in all parts but the flowers and seeds; both of which can even be consumed raw. I`m preparing Jelly and brewing Vinegar with the flowers and Marzipan from the seeds.

Yet even the young stems are edible after being blanched in a change of water and yield a crispy vegetable; that although it doesn`t have much flavor is a wonderful addition with much plate appeal to stirfries or pickles. And since Bachflower # 19 is renowned for it`s calming effects; we who bash Himalyan Balsam with Fork & Knife get rewarded with the nutritional benefits of this wonderful plant.

This was late June and from observing the plant near my house I knew it was soon to flower.  I waited a couple of weeks and in early July I set to work harvesting the flowers and bashing the plant as I went.  I found I could pull up the plant root and all quite easily so I yanked on each plant as I removed the flower.  By mid-July there was a lot more of the plant in flower and so again I set to work.

From experimenting I found the flower was rather bland but mixed in with a little dressing and some more flavoursome leaves it made an attractive addition to a salad.  However the amount needed in a salad by no means corresponded with the amount available – I clearly needed a use for it in bulk.

I found a recipe for Rose petal preserve and adapted it a little for the balsam. I found it also made a bonus by-product of Balsam sweets! This recipe makes one jar but scale up if you’ve found a good source of the plant and don’t forget to bash the balsam as you pick!



  1. Cut away all but the petals of the balsam
  2. Boil the juice, sugar and water to make a syrup
  3. Add the petals and cook on the lowest heat for about half an hour stirring all the time
  4. Strain through a fine sieve (the contents of the sieve can be separated out on a plate and eaten like sweets)
  5. Pot in heat sterilized jars (jars and lids that have been boiled and are still warm)

It makes a clear pink preserve which is incredibly sweet.  The colour is so vivid that I would use it to colour jellies, jams and cordials. I use the jar as a sweet spread and put it on ice-cream.

It could also be used as a topping for trifles or other deserts.

The seeds are also edible and I have successfully made into a nut burgers using a recipe for sunflower seed burgers.

Happy Bashing!

Self Sufficiency As a Retirement Strategy Part 1 An Introduction

Most retirement strategies focus on “wealth creation” or providing you with enough cash to maintain your pre-retirement extravagant lifestyle. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it is worth knowing that there is a better way – with self sufficiency as a retirement strategy

Complete self sufficiency is difficult if to impossible to achieve, even if you do have abundant land, and are prepared to work damned hard! But a measure of self sufficiency is open to anyone who is interested and has some resources behind them. How self sufficient you aim for will depend on your means, abilities and the level of comfort/lifestyle you desire. It is my retirement strategy of choice but I have no intention of working my bum off after I retire, but having some fun being able to thumb my nose (to a certain extent) at the system.

If you do choose self sufficiency as your retirement strategy it is as much about reducing your outgo as maximizing your income. Every dollar that you earn, you pay tax on, and the rate varies on the country and your income, but every dollar that you save, you keep 100%. My parents-in-law retired some 15 years ago when interest rates were 18%, but now they are 5% and they are finding that they have much less to live on. By maximizing your self reliance, you are insulating yourself to a greater or lesser extent from the external forces over which you have no control, but can have a dramatic effect on your lifestyle.

There are other benefits from the self sufficient lifestyle –

A lot of the stuff involved in Self sufficiency is not for the “Compleat Idiot”, you do need to know stuff. To generate power you need to be able to set up solar panels or a wind generator, manage batteries and regulate your demand so that it dos not outstrip your supply. It requires more knowledge and experience than what is required to plug in to the reticulated electricity supply and turn on a switch, but the rewards are there and not only monetary ones. There is also a considerable degree of satisfaction to be had by being able to provide for yourself at this basic food-and-shelter level. So…………. as with any retirement strategy, the time to start your preparations is now!

When you start looking at being self sufficient you start consideration of the basics like food, water energy and “other fun bits!”. There are plenty of other articles that talk about maximizing your income, so I will focus more on minimising your outgo, but in an article of this size all I can provide is an overview, hopefully motivating you to look further into some of the subjects discussed.


Elder Folklore and Growing

Just as the end of summer is marked by elderberries, the start of summer is always marked by the blossoming of the Elder-tree (Sambucus nigra).  In this article we cover elder folklore and growing tips for this popular shrub.

If you want to see some recipes of how to make such as elderflower champagne, elderflower cordial, elderflower wine and elderflower fritters then have a look in the wild food section.

Growing Elder

Elder Hardwood

Hardwood cutting for elder

Grow Elder from semi-hardwood cuttings, taken from new growth. A 30cm (1ft) cutting should be taken and placed in a coir, grit and compost mix then wintered in a cold frame or greenhouse. Don’t be tempted to pull up the cutting to see how it is doing, instead leave for around a year.

I have grown elder and blackcurrants by simply taking a hardwood cutting and pushing it into the soil in an out of the way part of a garden. The success rate was quite high and didn’t require any extra watering or materials such as coir or grit.

Elder will tolerate a VERY hard pruning, right down to the stump. It can be cut back this way each year if you want to keep it in check in your garden.

Container growing

The sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’ is a good variety to try in a container. Ensure that the containers are large enough and that you can give the plant some shade. Keep well watered in dry weather and feed occasionally.


The origin of its name is Anglo-Saxon and stems from the word Æld meaning fire; the hollowed out stems were used to start fires. This origin is quite clear in the Low-Saxon name for the tree ‘ Eldrum ‘.

In Folklore, the elder goes by many names including -

• Judas Tree – thought to be the tree Judas Iscariot Hung himself on.
• Pipe tree – It’s soft pith can be pushed out leaving a pipe shaped empty stem.
• Black Elder.
• Common Elder
• Bore Tree. Bour Tree. (Fourteenth Century)
• Hylder, Hylantree. (Anglo-Saxon) Eldrum. (Low Saxon). Ellhorn.
• (German) Hollunder.
• (French) Sureau.

Elder and Folklore

Its Latin name is Sambucus Nigra and botanically it belongs to the honeysuckle ( caprifoliaceae ) family. Elder trees are found almost everywhere in Europe in West Asia and right across North America. Throughout these countries it is stooped in myth and folklore. In the Isle of Man (UK) every cottage had an Elder growing outside it’s front door to ward off witches. In Russia, an Elder tree in this position was thought to ward off unwanted or evil spirits.

With this in mind it is somewhat strange that English folklore suggests the elder tree is a favourite form for a witch to take, and if its branches were cut then the witch would bleed. It has also been said that a death in the family would follow the burning of an elder tree, and gypsy folklore warns of bad-luck if its wood is used as kindling

Medicinal uses of Elder

Elder flower cordial is one of the most delicious drinks, and makes a fantastic home made sorbet for the summer. The flowers are ideal for colds and influenza. They are also good in aiding hay fever. The berries are ripe in autumn and are rich in vitamins A and C.

How To Use

• Use the flowers as an infusion for hay fever.

• Tincture for colds and influenza, use in early spring to reduce hay fever symptoms.

• Berries used in syrup from decoction is good for winter colds, mixed with thyme.

Hay Box Cooker

The Hay box cooker an old invention out of new materials by self sufficiency Guru Nev Sweeny

I first heard about the concept of the hay box cooker, which uses stored heat to cook food, many years ago. I made one out of straw, a pine box and a large glass casserole dish but it was not really successful. The main problem was that the casserole dish was too large so that you had to make too much food in one go, and there was not enough insulation between the casserole and the side of the wooden box. So I until recently I had gone without one of these useful devices.

While wandering through a neighbors garage sale I spied a large plastic cooleresky*, it looked well used, but it was intact and BIG (590mm x 370mm x 420mm high), so for the princely sum of $5 it was mine! To turn it into a haybox cooker I then needed to work out what cooking pot/s to use what and insulation material to use.

* Australian for cooler

Cooking Pots

I needed to work out the type of cooking pots to use, I had decided that the size of the esky would allow me to use two pots – a one litre and a two litre pot – so that I would have some flexibility depending on the number of people to be fed. The haybox cooker works most efficiently when the cooking pot is almost full of food.

Another way to improve heat retention is to ensure that the cooking pots have the least possible surface area for the volume contained, this is a sphere – which is geometrically inconvenient for my purposes, so I settled on a couple of squat, enameled steel billy cans. The lids of the cans also have a rim which ensures that condensation on the lid is returned to the pot.

The enameling on both pots is a dark blue and the idea was that I could use my solar oven to heat up the food and then put it into the haybox cooker to complete the process. That was the theory and for the 1 litre pot it works fine, but I found that when I tried the 2 litre pot it is just a wee to big, and prevents the glass front from entirely closing, which in turn lets the heat out. Another fine theory blown to hell due to lack of attention to detail!


The obvious answer here was “hay”, being a traditionalist of sorts, but hay has some disadvantages in that it is not so effective an insulator as some modern materials and it tends to absorb steam and odours during the cooking process which then cause it to grow bugs (yuch!). I wanted something that was light, low maintenance and an effective insulator. As luck would have it, a friend offered me an 1800mm x 900mm sheet of polystyrene foam that wasinsulation in the haybox cooker 25mm thick and had been used as packing in a container, so I accepted it gratefully.

I still needed to cut it to shape and the classic way using a saw creates a hell of a mess with fine particles of polystyrene all over the place. So rather than do that I looked around to see if I could get hold of hot wire cutter, which makes a nice smooth cut with little or no little fiddly bits. After some searching I found a reasonably priced ($25) battery powered unit available from Hobbyco in the city (Sydney). Its limitation was that it could only cut polystyrene sheet up to 35mm thick so this was not much of a problem with my stuff being only 25mm thick.

I cut two slabs to act as the bottom insulation and then a number of strips A pillowwith holes in them to accept the cooking containers up to the level of their lids. Here the analogy breaks down! To use the rigid polyester foam over the tops of the cooking containers by carving out the correct size and shape was beyond my technology, so I remembered our family motto – “when all else fails – cheat!”. I bought some polystyrene beads, used for stuffing bean bags and made up a cushion by loosely filling an old flannelette pillowcase, which sits neatly on top of the cooking containers and acts and an insulator. I sewed the pillowcase closed, because anything less than an airtight seal and the beans escape and get EVERYWHERE!

One problem with the esky was that, in common with a lot of esky’s cooler with insulaitonnowadays, there is actually no insulation in the formed plastic top, I assume that the air gap in the lid is supposed to act as an insulator. I was not happy with this, so using a cut of funnel I persuaded a whole stack of the polystyrene beans to go into a molding hole in the top. That was one tedious job, because the beans clearly did not want to go into the lid! Anyway once completed I sealed the hole with an (unused) industrial ear plug.

The haybox cooker was now completed.


The idea is to load up the cooking pot with your food in the same way you would a crockpot, this style of cooking lends itself to soups, stews and casseroles ie wet cooking so if you are after dry or crisp, this is not the way to hay box cooker with pots in itgo. Having filled your pots with ingredients and water up to about 25mm from the top, put it on the stove and bring it up to the boil, and boil for five minutes to get the heat into the centre of any larger lumps of ingredient. Once it has been boiling for 5 minutes quickly transfer it to the haybox cooker, smooth down the insulating pillow and clamp on the lid.
Leave everything undisturbed for 8 to 12 hours (No peeking!) and then open for a hot deliciously cooked meal.

To test our haybox cooker, I filled both containers and boiled them, transferring them straight to the cooker and then sealed it up. Early the next day, about 10 hours later, the 2 litre pot was still over 90C and the 1 litre one was still above 85C. The haybox cooker has served us very well, particularly during winter and I even used it to make a batch of my beef and veggie soup, a family favourite. I still looks a bit basic and I want to make a nice wooden box to go around it so that it looks like a piece of furniture rather than a well used esky…………………..eventually!

Wild Mezze Platter


Dave Hamilton. Copyright JP Hedge PhotographyI love Middle Eastern food in all shapes and forms. Nothing satisfies me more than tucking into a nice mezze platter. However as all the exotic ingredients have to be flown from half way across the world it is hardly a sustainable way to eat! With that in mind I decided to challenge myself to make a wild mezze platter with UK versions of all the middle eastern favourites. This would include a wild humus, wild falafals and wild vine lives.

So lets begin with the substitutions before I go into the recipes.


  1. Peel two handfuls chestnuts, and then crack about a palm full of hazelnuts.
  2. Boil them together until both are soft in just enough water to cover them
  3. Drain reserving the water
  4. Blend the two together, using a hand-held blender, slowly adding the water as you do so.
  5. Add a little oil and some spices if you feel it needs it, you can use sumac, toasted hogweed seeds and beech oil.

Dock Dolmades or Dolma

  1. Boil the dock in two changes of water, discarding the water each time.
  2. Fill each leaf with a teaspoon of cooked barley flavoured with mint, dried sumac and thyme.

Haw Salsa

  1. Boil two handfuls of haw-berries in just enough red wine vinegar to cover them (could use cider vinegar) along with some spices of your choice (chilli, crushed coriander seed etc)
  2. Strain through a sieve and serve


  1. Boil up some peeled chestnuts
  2. Strain and pat dry (the water can be used to make a nut stock or gravy)
  3. Use a blender or potato masher to crush them to a pulp.
  4. Work into falafel shapes with your hands and fry until browned on the outside


  1. Take a number of unripe sloes and leave in brine solution for one to two weeks depending on when you remember they’re there
  2. Place in a sterilized jar, cover with vinegar, seal and leave
  3. That’s it

Serve it all with pita bread and seasonal leaves (i.e. chickweed, wintercress, sorrel in the autumn/winter)

Nasturtium leaf pesto

Nasturtiums (Boston Public Library)

Nasturtiums are often over looked as a food source but in a bad year on an allotment they can really come into their own.  The flowers and leaves can be used in salads the buds can be blanched then pickled in vinegar for use as capers and as I’ve found you can make quite a tasty Nasturtium leaf pesto





Recipe Nasturtium leaf pesto

140g Nasturtium leaves – blanched for 30 seconds in boiling water, then refreshed in cold water

7 tablespoons of Olive oil

3 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts

25-50g- Parmesan  (optional)

2-4 cloves of garlic (depending on taste)

In a coffee grinder or pestle and mortar grind the toasted pine nuts and garlic

Place the resulting mixture in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients and mix!

Put it in a sterilized jar or use it straight away on pasta etc. I have experimented with this by not blanching the leaves and it means it’s slightly harder to mix but still makes a perfectly acceptable pesto.

They’ll take over your garden

They’ll grow like the wind

Plant them just once

And they’ll grow again and again

Old English Rhyme – written by Dave Hamilton Sept 2008


Dave, 25 May 2013, 2 comments
Categories: General Gardening, Outdoors, Seasonal Garden


Regardless if you believe in climate change or not you cannot deny our weather is becoming more unpredictable.  In the past we could rely on steady spring showers watering all our newly planted seedlings. Nowadays the spring can be one of the driest months of the year and without vigilant watering newly planted crops can suffer.  For the busy (or even the lazy) gardener this is a real bind as they may have to make special trips to an allotment site far from home or spend time watering when they have other things to do.

This problem is not a new one, the first recorded garden, the famous ‘Hanging Garden’ in Babylon, had to have a complex irrigation system to water plants on continued terraces.

Thankfully, gardeners and allotment keepers need not install a complex ancient irrigation system as there are much simpler alternatives.

 Leaky pipe

Starting with one of the most expensive, yet effective systems, those with a bit of cash behind them could install a ‘leak pipe’ system.  The leaky pipe system is the most common method of irrigation used large scale greenhouse and polytunnel growers.  Some garden centres and field growers use the same system and scaled down versions are available for the home grower.

The leaky pipe consists of a hose pipe running the length of a bed, the pipe is attached to a regulator and a measured amount of water will ‘leak’ out of holes along the length of the pipe. This method is great for those on a water meter as it delivers the water right where they need it, minimising losses from evaporation.
I’ve used these in a polytunnel and found them to be very effective for salad growing. They are easy to put in place and you can sow or plant at the same spacing as the holes which deliver the water.

You can shop around for these and like anything else you usually get what you pay for. I have come across second hand systems for sale as sadly during these times many growers are going out of business and selling off cheaply all kinds of things they would have spent and are and a leg on.  Look on ebay and in the local newspaper for auctioned off systems – you may just pick up a bargain.

Homemade leaky pipe

A similar system can be rigged up at home at a fraction of the cost of a true leaky pipe system.  It consists of a length of PVC pipe with holes made at the same spacing as the plants you wish to sow or plant. The pipe is laid on a bed alongside the crop – a hose is then attached to one end and the other end is either blocked or it is attached to another length of hose which then in turn is attached to another PVC ‘leaky pipe. If enough of them are attached together then a whole garden can be irrigated this way.   When you need to water the garden the tap is simply turned on, the garden is watered and the tap is turned on again.  Even simpler methods can be made by placing a hose pipe where it is needed and cutting holes in the pipe – the down side to this method is it will permanently damage a hose and it is more inclined to be knocked and disturbed than a fixed PVC pipe.

In the hose or PVC pipe method effectively you act as the regulator of water but again as the water is being delivered where it is needed your water bill should be reduced.

Similar systems can be rigged up to work on waterbutts rather than mains water. These tend to only work if there is enough water pressure present.

Wicking bed

Wicking beds are very well known in Australia, especially in permaculture circles. Their theory is very simple – plants tend to ‘wick up’ water through their roots so, having a water source from underneath will theoretically be more effective than watering from the top down.

A wicking bed will have just such a reservoir of water for a plant to draw on which should minimise the watering time for the gardener.

It is no surprise it was Australians who adopted the wicking beds system it is thought to be most useful in warm dry conditions. In the UK we have high rainfall across most of the country so wicking beds would might not be necessary on a large scale outdoors but small beds may well be worth experimenting with.

This method of irrigation holds the most promise for container growers and those growing under protection (such as greenhouses or polytunnels) as plants can all too easily dry out in these conditions.

The ‘reservoir’ consists of a agricultural (porous) piping or similar improvised homemade pipe covered with absorbent material such as coir or compost. This sits at the bottom of a bed or container and plants are sown into soil or compost above.

A step by step guide is as follows -

Step by step

  1. Find four plastic bottles – Tonic, cider or coke bottles are best –( if you don’t seem to have any it could be a good excuse to throw a barbeque).  Cut the tops and bottoms off three of the bottles to make a pipe lay these flat and use the third as an upright (cutting a hole in the side to fit the three bottle pipe to it).  Alternatively find a length of agricultural piping.
  2. Using a pin make a number of holes in the horizontal pipe.  As pipes can get clogged use old sacking or porous weed suppressant material to allow water out but not soil in.
  3. Place the constructed pipes into a polystyrene fish/vegetable container with holes made at one end. Or if you wish to use this in a larger bed place you should try to make a raised beds lined with impermeable plastic and dill drainage holes each end
  4. Next cover piping with course organic material – coir, straw or compost will do. For larger beds you might want to use expanded clay balls or volcanic rock similar to those used in water retaining layers in green roofs.
  5. Next is the layer your plants will be rooting in so fill with potting compost or top soil mixed with well rotted manure.
  6. Plant your seeds or sow your seedlings.
  7. Water into the upright around twice a week or when the pot/bed dries out.

Plastic bottle irrigation

When I first saw plastic bottle irrigation on an allotment site it confused the hell out of me. There in the middle of a bed on someone’s plot was a half submerged plastic bottle – at first I thought it was some kind of slug trap. After much head scratching an equally confused allotment neighbour said to me, ‘She pours water into to’ and added, ‘she’s got loads of them’.  The plot holder emerged before the end of the day and filled us both in to the theory behind the plastic bottle irrigation system.

They are an adaptation of much early method using an unglazed clay pot. The theory is a submerged vessel is filled and will gradually leak water into its surroundings.

As unglazed clay pots are quite hard to come by outside of rural Africa the next best thing is to use a plastic bottle. The plastic bottle turned upside down with the base (or top as it is upside down!) cut off and holes pierced in the lid.  The whole thing should resemble a semi submerged funnel.  Plants are planted or seeds are sown in a circle surrounding the semi-submerged bottle and the bottle/funnel is filled with water.

This directs the water where it needs to be and prevents plants getting a big soaking at once.

Plantings around the plastic bottle can include a ring of smaller plants such as salad leaves and radishes or you can put single ones in place for larger plants such as tomatoes.

Plastic bottle irrigation systems may be suitable for container growing and might help regulate watering if you need to go away for a long weekend.

Plant pot irrigation

An adaptation of this method involves semi-submerging a flower pot half filled with gravel or vermiculite. Seedlings are sown around the pot in the same way and the gravel or vermiculite gradually releases the water to the thirsty roots of your crops.

When irrigation is not needed

If we continue to have summers similar to those we have been having in the last few years there will be little need for any of these irrigation systems in outdoor beds. However, during the lead up to summer dry conditions have prevailed in the UK in recent years and if this is set to continue, an irrigation system of some kind will be paramount to ensuring a good harvest.   Like most growers this year I will pray for rain but pray most of it comes at night!

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