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Thursday, 30 April 2020

Diary from the pandemic day 41 - Germination

Germination is one of the great wonders of the world and even after more than 20 years since I first started growing my own food, it doesn't cease to amaze me that seeds germinate. Every year I sow seeds with hope rather than expectation that they will grow and every year they do!

Seeds are amazing things. Perfect little portable starters for plants that can be stored until required and activated into life at will by just providing a few basic requirements. Of course, they can't be stored indefinitely and germination success rate does deminish with time, and this varies from species to species. I have always read that parsnip seeds should be bought fresh every year and I have found from experience that sweetcorn and French bean germination rates go down significantly with storage time. However, some seeds, such as carrots, lettuce and brassicas seem to be fine years after the expiration date on the packet.

Seeds are made up of three main parts - the outer protective coating, a store of food that will be needed to fuel germination, and the germ or embryo that will grow when the conditions are right.

The first requirement for germination is water and a seed will spend several days absorbing water until it has enough to activate the enzymes that power germination. However, a seed also needs oxygen so it is important to not just submerge it in water. As such, providing enough water but not too much is critical for the first few days if germination is going to be successful. The final requirement is warmth and this is why seeds don't tend to germinate during winter. Germination rates are better if done inside or in a greenhouse during spring. Again, however, it is important to not over do it and if they are left in a closed greenhouse on a sunny day they can go above 40°C and this can cause the enzymes to be denatured (destroyed).

The first stages of germination happen under the ground and it can be difficult to be patient during this time and to not start to doubt that it will ever happen. This is particularly the case this year when I find myself standing in the greenhouse several times a day, wondering if anything has grown since I last looked! Sometimes just a little indication of disturbance to the soil surface is enough to get me excited.

After the initial stage of absorbing water, the root is the first thing to emerge and hormones control its growth towards gravity (gravitropism). Next the shoot emerges and hormones cause it to grow towards the light (phototropism). This is quite amazing really and very useful so that you don't have to worry about planting a seed the wrong way up!

It is only when the shoot breaks through the surface of the soil do we finally know for sure that germination has been successful. The leaf seeds (cotyledons) unfold and a seedling is born. Cotyledons are weird things because they look like leaves but very often they look nothing like the leaves that the plant will eventually go on to grow. As such, it can be very hard at this stage to know if what has emerged is the thing you planted or some rouge weed seedling. It is only after the true leaves grow that it becomes clearer. However, with experience, it is possible to recognise seedlings at the coyledon stage too and to quickly spot an imposter.

By the time the true leaves start to grow, the supplies in the seed are exhausted and it now necessary for the little solar panels that are leaves unfurl and start photosynthesing to make food. Ah photosynthesis - that awesome process that is probably the only thing that is more amazing than germination!

Left to its own devices, nature is quite capable of taking care of itself and germination happens everywhere during spring and summer without human intervention. However, a little understanding of it can help you to know how to store seeds to keep them viable, the conditions you need to provide to allow seeds to germinate, and how to recognise seedlings in their early stages. But don't worry, understanding the science behind it never takes away from the wonder of it or the thrill of seeing seeds you have sown starting to grow.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 37 - Growing Herbs

May is probably the leanest month in the kitchen garden. Food in storage has either been eaten up or is beyond its best. On the plot, the purple sprouting broccoli is coming to an end and the only new crops are rhubarb and asparagus... and there is only so much of either of those that you can eat.

However, what are really coming into their own are the herbs so it is a good idea to think about your herb garden now, ready for next month. Maybe your herbs need some attention, or a few new additions, or maybe you need to start a herb garden from scratch..

Late spring/early summer is prime time for leaves and that includes the leaves of herb plants. They put on a spurt of growth at this time of year and the leaves are fresh, tender and full of flavour. By June many of the herb plants will be putting their energy into flowering, which, although a lovely display that the pollinators enjoy immensely, means that energy is diverted away from the leaves. So make good use of them now and maybe cut some for drying or freezing too.

Herbs are a lovely addition to the kitchen garden, providing interest and flavour to recipes and meals. They are also relatively easy to grow and something that can be grown even if you don't have a garden.

Supermarkets sell growing herbs and you can keep them going on a windowsill for several weeks. Generally, there are more plants in the pot than can reasonably grow in such a restricted space and this is probably the main reason why the plants deteriorate and die after a few weeks. As such, if you split them up and repot them them, not only do you get more plants for your money but they should be able to go on and thrive rather than die.

Many herb plants are perennial, meaning that they survive the winter and will continue to grow for several years. This is another reason why they are easy to grow. Perennial herbs include all the classics such as sage, thyme and rosemary. Then there are some which are biennial, flowering in their second year and then dying. This include parsley. Finally, there are annual herbs that are not hardy enough to survive the winter and must be grown fresh every year. This includes basil.

Most herbs originate from the Mediterranean region and as such they enjoy warm, dry conditions. If possible, plant herbs in full sunlight in well-drained soil. We don't have well-drained soil but we managed to very successfully grow herbs in our sunny south-facing front garden for many years.

A few years ago we had our house extended and during this period our builders used our front garden as a storage area for their building material. We were, of course, expecting this so before they started we dug up our front garden and potted up all the plants we wanted to salvage. Since then, we have continued to grow herbs in pots in our back garden.

Similarly, back in April 2009, I planted up a large half-barrel with 6 herb plants for my mum's birthday and she has had it in her front garden ever since. So, as you can see, herbs grow very well in containers and it a method you can use if you don't have a garden or just as part of your garden. Indeed, herbs such as mint have very invasive roots and should only be grown in containers so as to limit their spread.

It is possible to buy herb plants from garden centres and online plant retailers. This is a great way to get started and can result in an instant herb garden. However, you can also grow many herbs from seed and this is particularly useful for annual herbs such as basil. In late summer, you can take cuttings off most herb plants and leave them through the winter to establish and this is a good way to get new plants.

So, which herbs should you grow?

Well, that depends on what you like to eat. As I say about anything in the kitchen garden, if you don't like it, don't grow it. This is why I don't grow coriander or parsley but these may well be your favourite herbs.

Sage is a good one to grow if you like sage and onion stuffing or a garish on butternut squash. Once established, it will look after itself and often produces beautiful purple flowers. You can also get variegated varieties and purple leaf varieties.

Rosemary is the classic flavour to go with red meat, particularly lamb. Again, it looks after itself and produces small blue flowers that bees love.

Related to rosemary is lavender and this is often grown as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful purple flowers and pleasant smell. It is supposed to be good for relaxation. It can be used as a culinary herb, although it needs to be used with caution so as not to end up with a soapy flavour.

Thyme is another classic and useful herb and there are loads of different types of thyme. We grow both the classic one and a lemon flavoured one, although we did have several varieties in the early days of our herb garden. It is useful in many types of dishes and is part of pizza herb mix. The lemon version is great in fish dishes and a few leaves really peps up a prawn mayo sandwich.

Both marjoram and oregano are important herbs in pizza and pasta dishes and both of these can be grown as perennials. There are green and golden versions of both, although the green ones are stronger plants.

Chives are a useful herb to add an onion flavour to dishes. They have lovely purple pom pom flowers too so are attractive to include in the garden. It is also possible to grow garlic chives, which have a garlic flavour and white flowers similar to wild garlic.

Bay can grow into quite a large bush so think carefully about where to put this before growing it. It can also be killed by very cold weather so it is good to grow it in a sheltered position near to a building or warm wall. It is useful to add to soups and casseroles to add flavour.

Dill and fennel are other herbs to grow at home. Fennel can grow very tall very quickly so, once again, think carefully about position before growing it.

Mint is a very tasty herb and very easy to grow. There are lots of different varieties of it, with subtle variations of flavour. However, it is very important to keep it confined to a pot and to not allow it to be planted directly in the ground as it is very invasive.

Parsley has two main varietys - curly leaves and flat leaved. They both grow readily but need to be replaced every two years as they are biennial.

Basil is a tender annual so needs to be grown fresh each year. There are lots of different variations including lemon and cinnamon flavoured ones and purple leaved ones. They grow readily from seed so are straight forward to grow. Basil does not dry well into dried herb and is best used fresh.

Coriander is an odd herb because it tastes differently depending on your genetic make-up. Some people taste it as a delicious herb with citrusy notes, whilst others taste it as soapy or like burning plastic. I wish I could appreciate coriander but unfortunately it completely ruins any dish it is added to as far as I'm concerned. If you wish to grow it, it is fairly straight forward and it is the best way to get a supply of fresh leaves for the kitchen.

Tarragon is another herb you can grow at home, although you need to make sure you grow French tarragon and not Russian as it has the superior flavour. It can be grown as a perrenial, although it can be killed by very cold weather. We grew some for years but it died off one cold winter.

Savory is another herb we have grown for years. It has a slightly unusual flavour but it pairs remarkably well with broad beans.

So, whatever your favourite herby flavours are in the kitchen, why not try growing them at home and enjoying fresh herbs throughout the summer and dried herbs in the winter.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 33 - A Little Pond

Yesterday we decided to give our little allotment pond a tidy up. It was overgrown with weeds around the edge and it was beginning to be covered in duck weed too.

We didn't want to give it too much of a tidy up because its purpose is to be a haven for wildlife and they aren't all that keen on tidyness. They like the overgrowth for shade and sanctuary. But there is a balance to be struck between wildlife and aesthetics and between overgrown and stagnant.

Anyway, we pulled up the surrounding weeds, reduced the encouching mint and thinned the self-sown leeks. We love allowing a few leeks to flower because they produce beautiful big purple pom pom flowers that the bees and hoverflies go crazy over. Once they have flowered they self-seed all over the place and that's just fine as that will make the following year's pom poms. However, there were clumps of very tightly packed leek plants near the pond at the moment and a little thinning out will help the remaining ones grow into something bigger and more substantial. As an added bonus, the leeks that we thinned out were big enough to eat so made an unexpected, and tasty, harvest.

Its never easy to tackle duck weed and its definitely one of those weeds you have for life. When I was a Science teacher, I used to show a video to my Year 11s on plant growth rates in which they investigated whether duck week or some kind of bambo was the fastest growing plant in the world. Of course, the bambo is much more dramatic with the amount of height it puts on in a day but the duck weed wins on the number of new plants it makes in a day. So, our little pond is a mini cloning lab for duck weed right now. I imparted all this useful information to the nearest Year 11 to hand. Thankfully my daughter is very tolerant of my impromtu Science lessons.

Anyway, the easiest way to deal with duck weed is to use a fishing net to scoop it out and to repeat regularly. Our pond isn't really big enough to fit a fishing net and, besides, our fishing nets are in the shed of our holiday cottage on the north coast of Scotland some 650 miles away. I can't imagine having to explain to a traffic police officer how retrieving fishing nets from the shed of our holiday cottage to deal with the duck weed in our pond constitutes an essential journey. So instead I decide to fashion one out of a scrap piece of material, some wire and a piece of bombo cane. 10 minutes (and no non-essential miles) later we were in business.

I was impressed by how thorough my daughter was at fishing out the pond weed and it kept her amused for quite some time. She dumped the weeds on a piece of plastic next to the pond to give the invertebrates chance to wriggle back into the pond. It was interesting to see that there were wriggly things in it; a good sign of pond health.

Of course, the most exciting moment of the afternoon was when my daughter spotted a frog looking back out at her. It is very heartening to know that our pond is sufficient to provide habitat for frogs as it was the reason we installed it in the first place. I explained to my daughter that frogs like to eat slugs and that was why we had built the pond. She said she thought it was just because her and her sister had enjoyed looking at the pond on the other allotment plots so much when they were little.

Well, I dug out my blog post from May 2009 this morning and confirmed that both were true and it was definely money well spent! So, for the sake of your wildlife and your children, I would recommend installing a pond if you can.

18th May 2009 

"Three of the other allotment plots have small ponds. These are a magnet for my girls and each visit to the allotment they inspect each pond in turn. They have been especially interested in the one with the tadpoles. So much so that we decided it was time we ought to put our own pond in - just a little one. With any luck the frogs will help with slug control too.

Having decided to get a pond I went to a local garden centre, tracked down an assistant and said, "I'd like one of those, please." But it turns out that ponds are very popular at the moment, particularly the little one I was after so instead of getting a pond I got a sheet of paper to prove I was on the waiting list. The assistant asked me if I'd like to go on the waiting list for chickens as these are also hugely popular at the moment. Tempting but I declined - one thing at a time.

Two weeks later I received a phone call to inform me that ponds were now back in stock so the next day I went and bought one - 81 litre capacity for £14.99. Late Saturday afternoon my husband put on his boots and grabbed his spade and off we went to the allotment. An hour later we had a pond, complete with water and surrounded by a pile of attractive pebbles and stones collected from years of seaside holidays.

The next day we visited the garden centre again and this time we bought 3 marginal plants, a mini water lily, some oxygenating elodea and a bag of gravel. The rest of the day the weather flitted rapidly between sunshine and showers (sometimes at the same time!) and blew a gale. Early evening we dashed out and put the plants in, distributed the gravel around the outside and took a cupful of pond water out of one of the other ponds to introduce some wildlife to our pond. A fellow plot holder has promised us some tadpoles out of his garden pond so that should be fun!

So it was £14.99 for the pond, £3.99 for the gravel and £20 for the plants. Fairly expensive for imperfect slug control but a great source of entertainment and education for the girls and definitely worth it!"

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 26 - Weeds and how to deal with them

I have been doing a heck of a lot of weeding in the last three weeks. I think weeding is the laundry or vacuuming of the garden. It is one of those necessary jobs, which is both a chore and kind of satisfying, and a few days after you last did it, it needs doing again.

To be honest, it's probably not the most interesting thing to either do or to talk about but I reckon it is  the biggest reason why people give up on their dream of growing their own food. In the 23 years that we have been tending our allotment plots, we have seen a lot of people come and go on the surrounding plots and I would say that the overriding reason for this is because they have failed to get on top of the weeds.

As much as I hope my guides to what to grow are of use to you, I figure it is just as important that I give you a guide on how to weed because without it, the rest of it is irrelevent.

When we took over the allotment all those years ago our plot was waist height in weeds and this is a fairly typical scenario. Oh, where to start?! Or even how to start?! It can seem daunting or impossible.

The answer is, of course, to just make a start. And there are no shortcuts.

In fact, trying to find a shortcut can be a huge mistake. Please, please, please do not think that the answer is to use machinery. Tractors, rotovators and ploughs will only chop up weeds and redistribute them. Some of the most persistent weeds, such as bind weed and couch grass, will actually be made worse by this process as each tiny piece of root will regrow into a new plant.

There are basic rules about getting rid of weeds and these work whether you are starting a new plot from scratch or whether you are maintaining your plot.

Firstly, if weeds are particularly tall, then cut them down a bit to make them more manageable but do not cut them off at ground level as you may lose track of where the roots are. Secondly, use a hand tool or a garden fork to dig out the root. This is important for perennial weeds and particularly so for those with tap roots, such as dandelions, or ones that break off easily at ground level such as goosegrass. Thirdly, collect the weeds as you go and dispose of them rather than leaving them on the soil where they might regrow. Most weeds can go into your compost bin but some will continue to grow in there so should be disposed of in your green bin collection (when it is up and running again) - this includes bind weed, dandelions and mares tail..

The main aim of weeding is to completely remove perennial weeds from the ground as they will just regrow if you don't. If you just remove the bit above ground level then it may weaken it temporarily but it will be back. With annual weeds, chopping them off at ground level could well kill them off completely and this is particularly true if they are still just tiny seedlings.

It is also important to keep on top of weeds so that they don't have chance to re-establish themselves. Some weeds quickly produce seed heads that then scatter their seeds readily to the surrounding area and start the problem all over again so it is ideal to tackle weeds before they can seed. Others propogate by spreading out, either rooting where they touch the ground (such as brambles), or by spreading out more roots underground. So, again, keep them at bay before they can spread. In addition, if weeds are allowed to grow, they will quickly out-compete the plants that you are trying to grow and these will suffer.

Once you have cleared the ground of weeds, the easiest way to maintain it weed-free is to use a hoe to break up the top layer of the soil and to cut up the new weed seedlings before they can get established. For this reason, when sowing rows of seeds, it is a good idea to leave a minimum width between rows that is the same as the width of your hoe. It is also useful to sow seeds in straight lines so that you can easily run up and down between rows with your hoe. In addition, sowing in straight lines can help you tell the difference between the seedlings of the things you are trying to grow and the weeds. If you have a line of something all the same then that is your crop and everything else is weeds.

Even with regular hoeing, you will still need to do some hand weeding too. This will be for the bigger weeds that the hoe can't tackle and also the ones that are growing right in amongst your crop plants and can't be removed with a hoe. When hand weeding, it is best to use some kind of tool that can dig in underneath the weed to remove it roots and all, and it is also useful to have some kind of seat or knealer because otherwise you will find it a strain on your back. Make sure you are wearing gloves too as this will protect your hands from stings, spikes and other unpleasant defence mechanisms deployed by weed plants. My other top tip is to take a photo of the weedy patch before you start and then again when you have finished so that you can see that you really did make a difference!

At the end of the season, it is ideal to remove the remains of your crop plant and weeds at the same time and then cover the fresh ground with something that will stop new weeds connolising over the winter. This could be old compost bags, old carpet or specially designed weed surpressing plastic, weighted down with bricks, milk bottles filled with water or similar. This is the best thing to do whenever ground is going to be left for a while and you will be very grateful for your efforts come the spring. 

Similarly, it is useful to cover pathways with some kind of weed surpresser to help to keep them weed-free. If paths are made out of hard materials such as paving slabs then this does the job but if they are just spaces between beds then cover them with carpet tiles or horticultural plastic. You can also use wood chipping or gravel, either on their own or on top of the carpet or plastic. Wood chippings, gravel or other mulching materials are useful around perennial crops too such as fruit or asparagus. These allow rain through, help to keep the ground moist and surpress weeds too so they are very useful. We use spent hops from Concrete Cow Brewery to mulch our asparagus bed and that works out well both for Dan from the brewery and for us.

It is worth remembering that weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place. As lovely as poppies, daisies and dandelions are in their own right, if they are out competing your lettuce then they are weeds and need to be removed. Remember too that even fruit and vegetables can become weeds. If you leave any kind of scrap of potato in the ground it will regrow the following year and it is not convenient to have a potato growing in your row of onions. Strawberries will send out runners and soon expand the size of your strawberry bed if not kept under control. All soft fruit can grow from dropped fruit from the previous year or by sending out underground runners and it isn't useful  to have a raspberry plant in the middle of your path! Please don't ever put mint or horseradish directly into your soil or it will overrun everything else. Remember, you need to be in control so if it is in the wrong place, dig it up!

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 25 - Growing Cucumbers, Courgettes & Pumpkins

After all the lovely weather we have been having recently, it is all too easy to get carried away and plant things outside too early. However, the cold weather over the last couple of days is a good reminder that an overnight frost could be just around the corner at any time during spring. But if you have a greenhouse or a sunny spot inside, you can continue to start off the tender plants inside and the last of these for me to talk about is the cucurbit family.

Cucurbits include cucumbers and their relatives - gherkins, courgettes, squash, pumpkin and melon. As such, they are a useful and exciting family to include in your garden and they can keep you very well fed.  All of them originate from South America so like warm weather and will be killed by the frosts so the growing season is quite short. However, they grow fast and can yeild an astonishing harvest in that time.

When it comes to cucumbers there are two main types - smooth and ridged. This also equates to indoor and outdoor varieties. We are used to buying smooth ones in the supermarket but it is easier to grow ridged ones at home because they do not need to be grown in a greenhouse. Ridged cucumbers have black spikes on them when they grow but these easily brush off when you wash them and after that it is hard to tell the difference between them and the ones you buy. We usually grow varieties such as Burpless Tasty Green and Marketmore as both have proved to be very reliable over the years.


Another type of cucumber is the gherkin. These are usually short and stubby in shape compared to normal cucumbers, are more spiky and have a bitter flavour. We like to grow them so that we can make pickled gherkin slices. It is possible to pickle them whole too but you have to pick the gherkin when it is still small to do that and it is very easy to miss that moment. They grow very quickly and will go from being too small to too big in just a couple of days. If they get too big I turn them into gherkin relish so all is not lost.

Courgettes are another member of the cucurbit family and they have a reputation for being prolific croppers. People who grow courgettes often end up with more than they imagined or even know what to do with so be cautious about the number of plants you grow. Green courgettes are the conventional ones you find in the shops but we mostly grow yellow ones as we feel they have a nicer flavour and a slightly thinner skin. You can also grow round courgettes, which are fun and are ideal for roasting as stuffed courgettes.

Next we have the squash family. There are summer squash, which include things such as patti pan. They can grow in a variety of interesting shapes and colours but I find that they taste very similar to courgettes but are a lot more awkward to peel! Then there are the winter squashes, which include the classic butternut squash. These have a different flavour and texture to the summer squashes and they also store really well, allowing you to keep them through the winter, which is handy.

Pumpkins are in fact a type of winter squash but we all tend to view them as a separate type of vegetable. Regular followers of mine on social media know that I have a bee in my bonnet about the amount of food waste generated each Halloween by people carving pumpkins and then discarding them. I go out of my way to publish recipes and ideas for eating pumpkins because they are an amazingly versatile vegetable and, again, can be stored right through until the following spring with care. We like to grow a selection of different pumpkins from small ones to ones suitable for Halloween lanterns to the pale green Crown Prince type.

The final cucurbit family member worth a mention is the melon. These are definitely more successful if you have a greenhouse as they like warmth but there are a few varieties suitable for growing outside. Even so, they are tricky and unlikely to yield more than a novelty-sized fruit. If you can dedicate time and attention to them then give it ago but don't build up your expectations.

The main things to bear in mind with all members of the cucurbit family is how big the plants can grow and how prolifically they can crop. Cucumbers are naturally a trailing plant but can be trained up a cane or other support so can be kept fairly compact. However, courgette plants just grow outwards with large leaves so need a good two feet of growing space per plant. This is small in comparison to pumpkin plants which will romp away across the garden, sprawling out its dinner plate sized leaves with no regard for whatever else you may wish to grow. As such, they are not suitable for small spaces.

A single cucumber plant will probably yield 5 or 6 cucumbers over the summer so you may only need one or two plants to meet your needs. Courgette plants are the most prolific and will produce dozens of courgettes per plant. They grow very quickly too so it is important to check the plant often when it starts cropping because what looked like a promising baby courgette one day could have turned into a monster marrow the next time you look. Pumpkin plants tend to only produce 1 to 3 fruits, and it is worth limiting the number of fruit it grows to ensure that you have a few that reach a good size rather than a multitude of small, under developed fruit.  All cucurbit plants will be killed by the autumn frosts so enjoy them whilst you can.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 20 - Finding Things to Grow In the Food Cupboard

A few days ago I had a conversation with my friend Amy, who lives in Italy. They have been in lockdown for quite a few more weeks than we have. She has a young son who is keen to grow things and is particularly keen to grow food so she was asking me what she could try next with him. They had already sown some tomato seeds from a tomato and these had germinated. They had put the end of a lettuce in some water to see if that would regrow. And they had sown some unlabelled seeds which looked like carrots to me from the photo.

I asked her if it wasn't possible for her to order some seeds from a seed catalogue but she said that it had been at first but now everything has stopped. So this led me to having a long hard think about what I could grow if I could only use the contents of my kitchen.

This isn't entirely new to me as I have always grown things like this since I was a child. It was my mum who helped me sow a lemon pip when I was about 8 years old, a plant I managed to keep alive for many years afterwards. At 12 years old, my friend and I tried growing avocado stones and again, I managed to keep my plant going for several years. I even managed to get the top of a pineapple to establish as a pot plant, although my dream of growing a tiny pineapple on it didn't ever happen!

As an adult, I have often wondered "what would happen if..." As such, I have ended up growing root ginger, peanut plants, an orange plant, turmeric and lemongrass. It has been fun, interesting and educational, although none of it has resulted in much to eat!

But the conversation with Amy made me take a fresh look at the resources in my kitchen. What could I grow if I didn't have access to packets of seeds? What might grow into something I could actually eat and what might just be interesting to try, especially if I were a small, eager child, excited to see something germinate?

At first I thought about the kind of stuff that I normally grow on my allotment. Which things in my kitchen have seeds in them or are seeds themselves? This includes tomatoes, peppers and squash. Unfortunately, cucumbers, aubergines and courgettes don't have mature seeds inside them. Other things, such as peas, beans and sweetcorn all tend to be picked before the seeds have matured so wouldn't be viable even if they weren't also frozen or tinned!

There are, of course potatoes, which at this time of year are busy trying to grow in the cupboard so that's a definite thing to grow. A whole new garlic bulb will grow from a single clove. And shallots will grow 6 or more new shallots from a single bulb. Onions and spring onions don't work - they would just go on to flower and I guess you could get seeds from that at the end of the season to use next year but I sincerely hope that things are back to normal before then!

I had a rummage in my cupboard for dried food and found pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds that I use in bread making and for my breakfast granola. I went looking for dried pulses and found some dried bolotti beans saved from last year's harvest but I was disappointed to find the lentils were all split. There is, of course, rice and that is a type of grass seed. And there was pearl barley in there too. Then I hit upon the popping corn, which is a type of mature, dried sweetcorn.

Next I raided the spice rack. Most of these are powdered so no good but I considered whole allspice berries, cloves, cardamon and maybe peppercorns. What are peppercorns anyway?! I have some crushed chilli too and on close inspection there were definitely whole seeds in there that have survived the crushing process. I can only hope that the drying process was natural or low temperature and didn't kill the seed.

Of course the dry roasted peanuts are no good as the roasting process kills the viable seed. I have grown peanuts before but they were unroasted monkey nuts and I don't have any of those in the cupboard currently. However, we do have peanuts that we feed to the birds and they should grow - I sometimes find peanut plants in the garden thanks to our little squirrel gardeners planting them!

In the fruit bowl currently I have apples, oranges and lemons that could all yield seeds. In the freezer, I have a multitude of soft fruit that all have seeds too and I don't think the freezing process would have damaged them. However, no fruit plant grown from seed this year is going to yield fruit any time soon. The best hope would be a strawberry seed but even then I would only expect fruit in the second year. Apple trees I believe need to be about seven years old to yield fruit. They are still fun to grow though, if you just love the miracle of germination.

Armed with my misscellanous selection, we headed to the greenhouse and set about sowing the seeds into flower pots. The first stage will be to see which of them manage to germinate and then we can go from there. The garlic and shallot we planted outside, directly in the ground so that they will have enough space to grow, should they be viable. And the potato we planted in an old bucket with drainage holes in the bottom. We put some lemon pips in a jar of damp cotton wool so that we can see the germination process. The avocado will have to wait until we have eaten the flesh!

In pots are have sown popping corn, pepper, chilli pepper, tomatoes, peppercorns, bolotti beans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, sushi rice, cardamon, peanuts and pearl barley.

Now we have a tray of labelled flower pots and I must confess I am very excited to see what happens next!

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 19 - Kids' Activity: Cress Heads

I used to run the gardening club at the local primary school and one of the fun activities I would do every year with the children was "Cress Heads". These are fun little characters made out of empty eggshells, cotton wool and cress seeds.

It's been about 10 years since my daughters last made cress heads but we thought we would have a go today to set some up ready for the Easter weekend. It was good fun. Here are the instructions.

You will need:

Egg shells
Cotton wool
Toilet roll tubes
Craft bits - felt tips, Sharpies, coloured paper, glue, tape etc.
Seeds e.g. cress, mustard, grass.

Step 1 - Ideally, when you break the eggs to use them, try to crack them close to the top to give plenty of shell left to be the character's face. Also try to have a few spare because they can be broken when making them if handled a little roughly. Rinse them out ready for use.

Step 2 - Cut the toilet roll tubes into three rings. Check that the eggs rests nicely on the tube rings. If the rolls are a bit wide, cut them and use tape to tape them back together again a little smaller.

Step 3 - Use pens and craft materials to decorate the tubes to look like clothes for the egg characters.

Step 4 - If you want, cut hands and shoes out of coloured paper and tape/glue them onto the tubes.

Step 5 - Use permanent pens and googly eggs (if you have them) to make silly faces for the egg characters.

Step 6 - Very carefully put pieces of cotton wool inside the egg shells. You will need quite a lot because it shrinks down when you wet it. But don't ram it in or the shells will break!

Step 7 - Water the cotton wool and sprinkle seeds on it

Step 8 - Put the characters in a bright position and keep the cotton wool damp. In a few days the seeds should germinate and then grow into silly hair for your egg characters.