Grow vegetables in hot beds for an early harvest

Grow vegetables in hot beds for an early harvest

If you grow vegetables, you already know some of the crucial requirements: a fertile soil and adequate water for starters. You also know that, in a temperate climate like Britain, warmth is vital; nothing will grow outdoors in winter. You probably worry less about light, and usually of course you don’t need to because light tends to vary in tandem with temperature. Normally if there’s enough light, it’s warm enough, too.

A gardener’s guide to growing vegetables in winter

Usually, but not always. By the end of April, the length of the day is the same as in early August, but in the vegetable garden the two seasons couldn’t look more different. August (most of the time) looks and feels like summer, with crops of all sorts growing away like mad. The end of April can also feel like summer, at least on a good day, but the vegetable plot is a study in brown, with bare ground and most new-season crops little more than seedlings. The problem is that until some time in April, depending on where you live, the soil and air are both too cold for seeds to germinate or for plants to grow. There may be 15 hours of daylight every day by the end of next month, but most of it is wasted.

Growing vegetables in winter
Growing vegetables in winter

There are, of course, ways to try to get ahead of the game. You can grow crops in a greenhouse, or on a windowsill and plant them out later, but the scale is limited. Yet there is a potential source of free heat in the garden; any heap of decaying organic matter, as long as it’s large enough, will get hot and stay that way for weeks or even months. You may well have wondered vaguely if all that heat could be used to grow early crops, but have been unsure how to make that work in practice.

Don’t worry – the “hot bed” technique is ancient. It last flourished in the era of the Victorian kitchen garden but more recently, someone else has endured the years of trial and error needed to devise a practical system. His name is Jack First and the fruits of his experience are explained in a little book called Hot Beds (Green Books, £9.95). Essentially, the technique requires a bed of decomposing material, with a frame around it to contain the growing medium, and a transparent glass or polythene “light” on top to keep the heat in. You could buy all the kit, but the book provides instructions for making your own. Using the methods described, the author routinely harvests radishes, rocket and salad leaves in early March. He then picks lettuce and turnips in late March, while carrots, beetroot and even potatoes arrive in April and May. And all that in Keighley in West Yorkshire – which is not the warmest or sunniest place in the world.

How to grow potatoes in pots for early spuds

Books such as this sometimes strike me as not particularly realistic, unless you’re prepared to live what amounts to one long episode of The Good Life. But First has realised that although many of us may strive for perfection, few of us will achieve it. So, for example, although the basis of his traditional method is stable manure, he has plenty of suggestions for those of us who can’t get hold of the genuine article. The method will work with leaves, paper, cardboard, wood shavings, sawdust, straw and even old cotton and wool clothes – anything, in fact, that could go on the compost heap. Some of these materials are low in nitrogen, but we all produce more than a litre of the remedy for that every day.

How to grow potatoes in pots for early spuds
How to grow potatoes in pots for early spuds

How to make your own compost

Similarly, the details of frame ventilation sound at first so complicated that it’s hard to see how they could be achieved by anyone with a normal working life, but it turns out that such attention to detail isn’t strictly necessary. Six hot beds that First set up at schools around Keighley all managed to produce decent early crops, despite a lack of expert attention, staff illness, school holidays and even vandalism. Hot beds are quite forgiving.

Just one final point. It’s obviously a bad idea for crops to squash up against the lights as they grow taller, so to avoid this First recommends gradually jacking up the frames with bits of wood. But an alternative solution is to replace the lights with plastic cloches. If you visit the National Trust’s Acorn Bank garden near Penrith you can see this system in operation for yourself.

How to make your own compost
How to make your own compost

Top Tips to keep your soil in top condition.

Some of the most amazing ways to keep your soil in top condition really don’t actually cost that much money and in this article we are going to go through all of those. It’s really good to work with the quality of your soil because it means that you’ll improve the quality of your garden overall and the wildlife that you attract with it. There are also some really cool bi-products of high quality soil and we’re going to look at those too. So let’s get started with the most important aspects of soil aggregate.

Digging your soil.

One of the most important aspects of keeping your soil in top condition is digging it. You need to keep the soil aerated and it needs to be turned over. If you turn your soil over regularly it’s extremely easy to incorporate compost and nutrients into the soil. The other great advantage of turning a soil over and digging it is that you’ll be able to have the soil drain easily as well as plant roots growing into that softer soil more comfortably.

Add compost and nutrients to your soil

After extensive growing and use of your soil it is really important to add nutrients back into the ground. Plants will sap the nutrients and quality of the soil so it’s an absolute must that you put some high-quality NPK back into the mix. Homemade compost from leftover food and waste materials such as grass are absolutely ideal to replenish the nutrients in the soil. This also leads back to point 1 of digging the soil, in that you need to fork this compost into the soil rigorously. It’s important to look and understand which nutrients are required for specific plants. Some plants will require a far higher Nitrogen or Potassium content and also it’s important to know at what stage is the plant will require what nutrients.

Rake your soil into a fine aggregate.

After carefully checking Garden Tool Box article on soil quality tips there’s only one real important aspect remaining in the care of your soil. That’s to ensure that you break your soil into a very fine aggregate. This will really help to aerate the soil far more and your plants or really thank you for it. If the soil is really fine and fluffy means that the plant roots will be able to grow through easily. This will promote quick and healthy growth in your plants. One of the most important points of any growing is the germination and early stages of a plant. If they can get a great start from high quality soil then you’re halfway there already.

Another great tip to improve the quality of your soil is to add mulch. By adding mulch you can actually keep the surface of the moisture retained much more easily. This is because where the mulch is placed it results in evaporation occurring far more slowly. It creates a dark and damp environment and keeps moisture where plants really needed. This is really important to promote earthworms and of course we all know the benefits of earthworms for your soil quality. The other great thing about mulch is that eventually it will decay down and become high quality soil too.

in summary the most important aspect of keeping a soil in tip top condition is digging. Whilst digging isn’t the easiest thing, it certainly is good exercise and it’s really great for your plants as well as the wildlife in your garden so it’s absolutely unavoidable. One way to break this tedious task up is to just tackle it’s 10 to 15 minutes at a time. If you break the job up and do something else in between it won’t be so physically exhausting and it also won’t becomes quite as boring and tedious.

Grow Your Own Tomatoes

The prospect of tackling tomatoes often scares novice gardeners but there’s no need to be frightened. It’s true that getting your head around what goes on inside a greenhouse is probably best left to those who have already been gardening for a while. But growing tomatoes outdoors is pretty straightforward, especially if you follow my simple, step-by-step guide. Anyway, many gardeners believe that tomatoes grown outdoors have a better flavour than those raised in greenhouses. There’s only one way to find out if you’re up to the challenge and that’s to take the plunge and grow your own!

Lesson 1: Sowing the Seeds

1.1) Plant Types

Outdoor tomatoes fall into two categories, cordon and bush. Cordon varieties produce fruit on laterally growing branches (cordons). They grow to around 2m in height and have to be supported. Bush tomato plants are much shorter – around 60cm – and don’t need supporting. Getting to the fruit can sometimes be tricky. Unless you place straw beneath the plant, the tomatoes often end up in the dirt.

Sweet 100

1.2) Starting Off

Cordon plants will produce fruit all summer, in contrast to bush varieties, which tend to crop over a shorter period. This characteristic sometimes leaves you with more ripe tomatoes than you can eat, so we’re recommending cordon plants for our project. Start your tomato plants by sowing two seeds each in 7.5cm pots filled with moist – but not waterlogged – potting compost. Cover lightly with the potting compost and place on a windowsill. In a few weeks’ time, you’ll be transferring the small plants into growing bags. There’s more on this topic in a later lesson.

1.3) Try These

“Gardener’s Delight” has earned its reputation as one of our most popular outdoor tomatoes. This cordon plant produces a heavy crop of small, tangy fruit. “Sweet 100” is another popular cordon variety. If you’re attracted to bush varieties, try “Red Alert”. It’s a relative newcomer to the scene but has swiftly become a favourite.

Lesson 2: Growing Tomato Seedlings

2.1) Into the Light

Tomato Seedlings On The Windowsill
Tomato Seedlings On The Windowsill

Tomato seedlings normally emerge between one and two weeks after sowing. A light location such as a windowsill is a good place to grow your seedlings but don’t position them in direct sunlight all day. Too much sun may burn the young leaves. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, remove the weaker plant. Don’t forget to water the seedlings. If the surface compost is dry, you’ve definitely left it too long.

2.2) All Change

After around four weeks, the roots of the seedlings should start to peep out of the bottom of their 7.5cm pots. They need more growing room but they’re not ready to go into growing bags yet. Transfer them into 12.5cm pots to finish off the first stage of the growing process. They should be ready for transplanting into growing bags in another three weeks.

2.3) Choosing Growing Bags

In the next lesson, we’ll be looking at transferring your tomato plants into growing bags. Although that stage is still a little way off, it makes sense to buy the growing bags now. They’re popular items and garden centres can run out of them. The last thing you want is several tomato plants bursting out of their pots and no growing bags to transplant them into! When choosing growing bags, go for quality. They may cost a bit more but they’ll give you much better tasting tomatoes. Cordon varieties need supporting. If you plan to position your growing bags on the earth, you can use garden canes to support the plants. But, if the bags are destined for a patio or other hard surface, consider using a support frame specifically designed for growing bags.

Lesson 3: Transferring Tomatoes to Growing Bags

3.1) Making the Switch

Your young tomato plants are ready to be transferred into growing bags when they are around 15cms tall, or by the time that flowers have just started to form on the first “truss” (branch). Before making the transfer, you need to prepare the growing bag. Knead it thoroughly to loosen up the compost, which may have settled during storage. Good quality growing bags usually have three circles cut in them for plants. Make a few holes in the underside for drainage and then cut out the planting holes.

3.2) Stake Out

Heap up the compost slightly, removing some to make room for a tomato plant. Position the plant in a depression so that the surface of the root ball is slightly below that of the compost. Cover the root ball with a thin layer of compost, firm in the plant and water. If you’re planting a cordon variety, use a growing bag frame to position a vertical cane next to each plant. Bush varieties won’t need extensive support but a single cane may nevertheless be helpful. As the tomato plants develop, tie them to their canes with loose loops of soft garden twine. Review these fixings periodically: tight or awkwardly placed loops may restrict growth.

Watering Tomato Plants
Watering Tomato Plants

3.3) Tomato TLC

There’s no doubt that growing bags provide a convenient environment in which to grow vegetables. But most gardeners agree that looking after crops grown in this way takes more work than tending vegetables raised in the ground. Regular watering is a must. Tomatoes shouldn’t be waterlogged but they do need plenty of water. Experienced gardeners sometimes reduce the amount of water they give their tomatoes in order to improve the flavour but in these early stages you should concentrate on keeping the compost moist by watering little and often.

Lesson 4: Caring for Young Tomato Plants

4.1) Training Programme

Tomatoes are ready for picking 16-20 weeks after sowing, depending on the variety grown and the environmental conditions. So you’ve got a while to go yet before you can enjoy your home-grown toms. Meanwhile, water the plants little and often and feed them with a potash-rich liquid tomato fertiliser every week. The other main focus at this stage in their development is to train the plants so that they produce the maximum amount of fruit. If you’re growing a cordon variety, the way to do this is by limiting the number of “trusses” (flowering branches) that the plant is allowed to develop.

4.2) Pinching Out

Cordon varieties have a central stem that produces leaves and trusses. Once a truss has been established, monitor the plant for side-shoots emerging from joins between the leaves and the stem in that area. Pinch them out so that the plant concentrates on growing your chosen truss. As the plant grows, remember to tie it loosely to its supporting cane. Bush varieties don’t need this intensive training. They should be sturdy enough to cope without support and there’s no need to limit the amount of shoots that they develop.

Take Care Tomato Plants
Take Care Tomato Plants

4.3) Troubled Tomatoes

As the plants develop, lower leaves may begin to discolour or decay. Remove them promptly to avoid the spread of disease. Two of the most common tomato problems are fruit that split and blossom end rot. Split fruit are easy to recognise. Blossom end rot is distinguished by a dark, leathery patch on the bottom end of the fruit. Handily, they both have the same cause – an uneven watering regime. Don’t allow the compost to dry out and then flood it with water. We’ve said it once already in this lesson but it’s worth repeating: growing bags must be watered little and often if the weather is dry.

Lesson 5: Training Tomato Plants

5.1) Exciting Times

The formation of trusses (flowering branches) signals the start of an exciting phase for tomato-growers. Once the flowers die away, it won’t be long before the fruit will begin to develop. If you’re growing a dwarf variety, you can sit back and enjoy watching perfect little tomatoes form. But growers of cordon varieties need to keep their wits about them. This is not a time to get complacent!

5.2) Positive Energy

The first priority for cordon-growers is to continue the policy started in Lesson 4 of making sure all the plant’s energy goes into producing fruit. Pinch out side-shoots before they have a chance to take hold. This will mean inspecting your plants regularly because growth can be vigorous during this period. Outdoor tomatoes naturally tend to produce only four useful trusses. So there’s no point in allowing the plant to waste its energy once small fruit have begun to develop on the fourth truss. When this occurs, pinch out the growing tip of the main plant two leaves above the fourth truss.

5.3) A Regular Life

Whether you’re growing dwarf or cordon varieties, you’ll need to make sure that the plants are watered and fed regularly. Growing bags don’t hold much water, so little and often is the rule. Yes, we know we’ve said this before in previous lessons but we want you to have lovely, healthy tomatoes! Read the instructions for applying liquid tomato fertiliser carefully but use your common sense, too. For example, tomato feed diluted in 4.5 litres of water may swamp a growing bag if given at one application, especially with younger plants. It may be better to spread early feeds out over two applications. When feeding and watering, it’s a good idea to remove the rose from your watering can. That way, you can direct the nozzle at the roots. Finally, now that the plants are growing thicker and stronger, don’t forget to check that the ties you put in place some weeks earlier aren’t cutting into the stems.

Grow Your Own Potatoes

You really can’t beat the taste of potatoes that you’ve just lifted from your own garden. And the good news is that growing your own potatoes needn’t be a chore if you follow our simple rules. You have to put in a bit of effort at the beginning but a little elbow grease goes a long way with potatoes. What’s more, the most delicious spuds of all – those new potatoes that you slather in butter and gobble greedily on a summer day – are the easiest to grow. So, what are you waiting for? The great British spud is coming to a garden near you!

Lesson 1: Preparing to Plant Potatoes

1.1) No Pain, No Gain

You have got such a treat in store when you harvest your first crop of home-grown potatoes. But, before you get to the yummy bit, you’ll need to work up a sweat! Potatoes, like any root crop, find it difficult to grow in compacted, stony ground. Choose an open, well-drained, sunny spot and dig over the soil, breaking up clods of earth and removing stones. Work in plenty of compost and manure. Avoid excessively limey soil.

1.2) Pioneer Potatoes

Ideally, you should dig your potato patch in the winter, allowing it some time to settle before planting. But spuds are a pretty forgiving crop and you can do this job in the early spring if you have to. In fact, many gardeners use potatoes as a “pioneer” crop on new vegetable plots. Don’t plant potatoes where they have been grown in the past three years. This encourages disease.

1.3) Head Start

Chit Potatoes

There are three types of potato: early, 2nd early and main crop. The easiest way to grow any variety is to buy seed potatoes especially raised for the purpose and certified free from disease. Earlies should be “chitted” before planting. Find a light, airy position indoors and place the tubers in a seed tray or old egg box with the sprouting ends uppermost, around six weeks before planting. The green sprouts that result give earlies a head start. Chitting is not normally necessary for 2nd early or main crop potatoes.

1.4) Try These

There are hundreds of potato varieties. Experiment to see what works best for you. Earlies include “Pentland Javelin” and “Arran Pilot”; “Estima” and “Kestrel” are reliable 2nd earlies; try “Cara” and “Maxine” main crops.

Lesson 2: Planting Potatoes

2.1) Early Learners

Most potatoes are planted in early to late spring but they mature at different rates to provide eating throughout summer and into autumn. Many beginners find that it’s best to start with early and 2nd early potatoes. Spuds are pretty easy to grow but can succumb to pests and diseases, especially once they’ve been in the ground for a while. New potatoes are also more expensive to buy, so growing your own will save you money.

2.2) Spaced Spuds

Plant seed potatoes with the shoots uppermost. Aim for two or three shoots per tuber. Rub off extraneous shoots. Gently place them in 15cm-deep drills (trenches), covering them with soil to form a slight ridge. Many gardeners recommend adding a general purpose organic fertiliser to the bottom of the drill. Earlies should be 30cm apart, with 45cm between rows. Space main crop and 2nd earlies 38cm apart with 75cm between rows.

2.3) Potted Potatoes

Potatoes make good container crops. Plant two or three early seed potatoes in tubs at least 30cm deep and wide, filled with multi-purpose compost or well-improved garden soil. Use chitted tubers and plant them half-way down a 30cm-deep container. Alternatively, use heavy duty plastic rubble sacks, perforated for drainage. In this method, plant main crop potatoes in a sack half-filled with compost. “Earth up” the shoots as they grow, rolling up the sack to accommodate the extra compost. There’s more about earthing up in the next lesson.

Lesson 3: Looking after Potatoes

3.1) First Shoots

Once the shoots have grown a few centimetres above the soil, it’s time to begin the “earthing up” process. Draw earth up around the emerging stems and repeat every fortnight or so as the plants grow. This ensures that the developing tubers are not exposed to light. Potatoes that have been exposed to light become green and they’re not good to eat: they can give you an upset stomach.

3.2) Hanging Loose

Keep the soil between your rows loosened. This will make it easier to earth up the stems when they appear. The best tool for earthing up is undoubtedly the draw hoe. If you’re planning on growing a lot of main crop potatoes, a draw hoe is a smart investment.

Scab Potato

3.3) Fighting Scab

Water early potato plants regularly, especially in dry weather. Don’t let them dry out once the tubers have reached marble size. Main crop potatoes need plentiful watering around the time that the flowers develop. This will increase the yield and make the plant more resistant to scab, which attacks potatoes in dry soil. Although potatoes are thirsty, they don’t like to be waterlogged. It’s essential to choose a well-drained site in the first place. As spring turns into summer, keep an eye out for the first flowers on your earlies. Find out why in the next lesson.

Lesson 4: Harvesting Early Potatoes

4.1) Flower Power

There’s a reason you’re looking out for flowers on your early potatoes. The arrival of fully opened flowers is your cue to make an exploratory excavation! This is usually around three months after planting. Approach the plant from the side and carefully lift the tubers with a fork. If you have a fork with flat tines, use it. Otherwise, go gently, trying not to disturb the tubers until you’ve worked out how big they are.

4.2) Salad Spuds

With luck, you should have a lovely crop of new potatoes – an ideal accompaniment to a summer salad. If the tubers are still too small, leave them a little longer. As a rule, don’t harvest more early potatoes than you need for your next meal. These spuds taste so much better when they’re straight out of the earth. They also lack the thicker skins of main crop potatoes so they don’t keep as well as their more robust companions.

Harvesting Early Potatoes
Harvesting Early Potatoes

4.3) Routine Maintenance

If you’re growing 2nd early and main crop potatoes, don’t neglect them in your excitement over your tasty early harvest. Sticking to a regular earthing up routine, for example, will help ward off potato blight, a serious disease that can destroy an entire crop and strikes during cool, wet summers. Pinch off main crop flowers to encourage bigger tubers.

Lesson 5: Harvesting Main crop and Late Potatoes

5.1) The Main Event

Treat 2nd early potatoes as earlies, although some varieties can be kept in the ground longer. They should be ready to harvest after around 15 weeks. Main crop potatoes will reach maturity after 18 weeks. By this time, the foliage is turning brown. Cut down the foliage and leave the potatoes in the ground for another fortnight before lifting for storage.

5.2) Sound Storage

Immediately after lifting, leave the tubers to dry out for a few hours. Examine the crop and use or destroy any damaged tubers. Only store completely sound potatoes. Place them in boxes with raised corner posts, in a dark, frost-free location. Cover them if necessary to ensure they don’t turn green. Inspect them periodically.

Home-Grown Potato
Home-Grown Potato

5.3) Welcome Latecomers

Your home-grown potato experience needn’t end in the autumn. Early varieties planted in late summer will provide crops in late autumn or even winter. Some suppliers prepare seed potatoes especially for this purpose. Choose sheltered positions or use the space vacated by your genuine early crop, after improving the soil with well forked-in compost and general purpose organic fertiliser. (This follow-on technique is an exception to the rule of not growing potatoes in the same spot within three years.) Lift in late autumn or cover with straw and leave for a few more weeks. Fresh, home-grown potatoes are guaranteed to lift a winter supper!

Grow Your Own Lettuce

There are four main types of lettuce. Butterhead lettuces are globular, with soft leaves. Crisphead lettuces are also globular but have tightly packed, iceberg-style hearts. Both these types can be difficult to grow so we’ll be starting you off with loose-leaf lettuce, a “cut and come again” type of lettuce that’s kind to beginners. The upright, cos lettuces are also pretty straightforward to grow. Unlike the loose-leaf varieties, cos lettuces are harvested whole.

Lesson 1: Sowing the Seeds

1.1) Time to Sow

Lettuces need plenty of sunlight but can “bolt” if they get too much, so a partially shaded area is best. Dig the plot over thoroughly, get rid of stones and mix in well-rotted manure or compost to help water-retention and bolster nutrients. Rake the soil to create a fine tilth (surface soil that’s ready to plant). Use your hoe to form a channel, or “drill”, 1cm-1.5cm deep. Mark the course of your drill beforehand with garden twine and stakes to avoid wobbly rows of lettuces. Thinly sow (10-12 seeds over 30cm) the drill, cover with fine soil. Firm, label and water. Space rows 30cm apart. Don’t plant all your lettuce seeds at once. Save some for later. There’s more about this in later modules.

1.2) Container Crop

Loose-leaf lettuce is an ideal crop to try in containers. Use soil-based multipurpose soilless compost and sow at the same depth as for sowing in a conventional bed. Sow groups of seeds around 5cm-10cm apart. You’ll thin the seedlings out later. Don’t be stingy with your container size. You need one that’s at least 45cm wide and 45cm deep.

1.3) Try These

Salad Bowl” is a reliable loose-leaf lettuce. “Lollo Rossa” is another steady loose-leaf variety. The reddish, frilled leaves are attractive as well as tasty. “Lobjoit’s Green” is a proven performer among the Cos lettuces. “Little Gem” is a fast-maturing Cos variety. Another strategy is to buy a packet of assorted loose-leaf seeds. That way, you’ll be harvesting ready-mixed green salad come the summer.

Lesson 2: Thinning Lettuce Seedlings

2.1) Survival of the Fittest

Lettuce seedlings usually begin to appear between 1 and 2 weeks after planting. Once they’re large enough to handle, it’s time to thin your rows. Get on with this task – lettuces don’t respond well to overcrowding. Water the seedlings the day before you intend to begin thinning them out. When thinning, look along the row and choose the strongest seedlings, based on the spacings given below. Gradually remove the rest.

2.2) Spaced Out

A cos lettuce like “Lobjoit’s Green” will need to be spaced around 30cm from its neighbour. Smaller varieties such as “Little Gem” should be thinned so that they’re around 23cm apart. If you’re growing loose-leafed lettuce, thin the seedlings so that they produce a more closely packed row, with a plant every 15cm. “Salad Bowl” is a good loose-leafed variety to try growing in this fashion. Because it can tolerate closer spacing, loose-leaf lettuce is a good choice for containers. Again, aim for 15cm between plants.

Lettuces growing

2.3) Water Wisdom

Water the lettuces in dry weather, aiming to give them around 15 litres per square metre, per week. Do your watering in the morning if you can, so that the leaves are dry by dusk. If lettuce leaves are left wet overnight they are more prone to pick up diseases. Once you have thinned your rows to the correct spacing, you may want to consider using a mulch of organic material around the plants. This will keep down weeds and help to retain moisture. A “quick and dirty” alternative is a black plastic sheet with holes cut out for the plants. It may not be an attractive option but it is effective. Slugs and birds can threaten young lettuces. One non-chemical defence is to cover a young lettuce plant with a bottomless plastic drinks bottle.

Lesson 3: Looking After Lettuce

3.1) Slug Defences

Organic Pest Control

Most lettuces are ready to harvest after eight weeks, so your crop still has a little way to go before it hits the salad bowl. Meanwhile, it’s up to you to protect young lettuces from slugs and snails determined to fill their own salad bowls! By now, the seedlings may have outgrown the bottomless water bottle defences suggested in Lesson 2. Other non-chemical strategies include surrounding plants with grit or protecting them with serrated rings cut from larger plastic bottles. Alternatively, you can try luring your enemies away from the plants by making a slug trap. Saw a plastic water bottle in two just below the neck. Invert the neck end, push it back into the other piece and fix with staples or tape. Fill this contraption with beer or a sweet drink and place it near your crop.

3.2) Second Chance Salad

Now is a good time to think about re-sowing, especially if you are growing upright cos lettuces. Loose-leaf varieties allow you to harvest salad leaves for weeks but a row of cos lettuces will tend to mature at the same time. Try sowing a few cos seeds at fortnightly intervals until the end of July. This strategy should give you regular supplies of cos lettuces until early autumn. Certain loose-leaf lettuces may begin to produce leaves big enough to eat after six weeks. Keep your eyes open for larger leaves and pick them, to encourage more growth.

3.3) Shady Characters

If you’re also growing climbing French beans, you might want to consider sowing later rows of lettuces next to them. The shade provided by the beans will help prevent the lettuces “bolting” (running to seed) as a result of too much exposure to the midsummer sun. Remember to keep weeds down by hoeing between rows. Finally, don’t forget that both the original crop and the new seedlings will need watering regularly, especially if the weather is dry.

Lesson 4: Harvesting Lettuce Crops

4.1) The Heart of the Platter

It’s time to bring out your best salad bowl! If you managed to get your cos lettuces in the ground during late April, you should be able to begin harvesting them around now. Look out for plants with firm hearts but don’t go squeezing them: this will damage their delicate structure. Instead, test for firmness by pressing down gently on the heart with the back of your hand. If you detect a decent heart, don’t hang around. Harvest it straight away. If you leave it much longer the lettuce will bolt (run to seed). Pull the whole plant up, despatch the root and lower leaves to the compost bin and enjoy!

4.2) Leaf Lore

Loose-leaf varieties tend to mature a little earlier than hearted lettuces. So you may have already sneaked the odd leaf on to your plate, in order to encourage growth. By now, though, varieties such as “Salad Bowl” and “Lollo Rossa” should be producing leaves more regularly. When harvesting, choose outer leaves and cut them close to the ground – it encourages growth. Even if you can’t eat all the leaves that are ready for harvesting, cut them anyway. You can give away the surplus or compost it. But leaving large leaves on the plant will inhibit growth. It’s best to harvest all types of lettuce in the cool of early morning or evening.

4.3) Salad Supply

As well as harvesting your existing crop, you should be tending the seedlings you sowed after Lesson 3. Treat them the same way you treated the first crop but be aware that they will have to endure drier, sunnier conditions than earlier lettuces. You’ll need to be on hand with that watering can! If you want an uninterrupted supply of cos lettuces later in the summer, find some time now to sow a few more seeds.

Lesson 5: Extending Your Lettuce Harvest

5.1) A Lettuce of One’s Own

Have you noticed anything different about your fridge recently? Yep, there’s been a big drop in the number of plastic bags it contains, now that a significant proportion of your salad is coming straight out of the garden! If you want to extend your lettuce-growing potential even further, try using the “catch-crop” technique. Catch-cropping is the practice of sowing rapidly maturing vegetables such as loose-leaf lettuce in the space left by harvested crops. If you’re following the carrot course and you’ve pulled all your early carrots, for example, you could sow some lettuces in that space – but you’ll have to get your skates on.

5.2) Heat Stroke

Remember that midsummer temperatures can be a challenge for lettuces, so don’t use them as a catch crop in positions where they’re going to suffer prolonged exposure to the sun. Taller plants like French beans, runner beans or sweetcorn are ideal for providing shade in these circumstances.

5.3) Garden Nasties

As veggies go, lettuces don’t have too many enemies. But, when something unpleasant gets hold of your crop, you’ll know all about it. If you don’t want to use chemicals against pests (after all, what’s the point of home-grown produce if it’s been exposed to chemicals?) you can do an awful lot to prevent them by meticulous vegetable plot maintenance. As a general rule, employ a zero-tolerance policy against weeds. Their presence encourages a number of pests and diseases. Don’t leave lettuce stumps in the ground once you’ve harvested the heads. They’ll rot and attract pests, especially root aphids. Water your lettuces regularly. Finally, some gardeners warn that you shouldn’t try to grow lettuces in soil previously occupied by chrysanthemums because this environment will attract root maggots.

Lesson 6: Growing Winter Lettuces

6.1) Lots of Lettuce

Your lettuce harvest will be well under way by now. Loose-leaf varieties should be regularly producing leaves and later sowings of cos lettuces ought to be approaching maturity. Bear in mind that lettuces get extra-thirsty as the summer really heats up, so don’t relax your watering regime. Now is the last chance to sow conventional summer varieties for harvesting in early autumn.

6.2) Winter Strategies

Lettuce Avondefiance

For an early winter crop, sow a variety such as “Avondefiance” in August. This mildew-resistant type is a so-called butterhead lettuce. It has the loosely-packed heart of many traditional “English” varieties. When the colder weather arrives at the end of September, cover the crop with cloches. The lettuces should be ready to harvest in November or December. If you’re looking to harvest lettuces in spring, try “Winter Density” a dwarf, cos-type lettuce similar in appearance to “Little Gem”. Sow in late summer or early autumn. Protect the crop with cloches during winter. Once winter’s over, thin the young plants to 15cm. They’ll be ready to eat in April. If you want to go the whole hog and grow lettuces for consumption in mid-winter, your only option is to use a greenhouse or other heated enclosure.

Grow Your Own French Beans

Originally from South America, French beans are a great choice for the kitchen garden. If you pick the pods when they’re young and tender, you won’t have the chore of slicing and stringing usually associated with runner beans. There are two types of French beans, dwarf varieties (the most common) and climbers. The compact bushes of dwarf varieties grow 30cm-45cm high. Climbers can reach 2m. Dwarf beans tend to crop over a relatively short period, so gardeners normally make successive sowings. Mature climbers produce pods all summer.

Lesson 1: Choosing your Site

1.1) Site Selection

Choose a well-drained, sunny spot. Make sure it’s sheltered, though: French beans can be vulnerable to chilly winds. If you’ve opted for a climbing variety, bear in mind that the plants will need supporting. There’ll be more on support strategies in a later lesson. Tall climbers will cast a shadow over whatever’s planted next to them, so site your bean plants carefully.

1.2) Deep Roots

French beans can grow in most soils, providing they aren’t too heavy or too acidic. Nevertheless, a rich soil incorporating plenty of well-rotted compost and organic material is important if you want to get the best out of this crop. The plot should be well dug, to at least a spade and a half’s depth, because French beans have deep roots that need plenty of elbow room downstairs. Ideally, the soil should be prepared at least a month in advance but, if you get out there now and prepare a patch, you should be able to sow your French beans in a couple of weeks’ time (May).

French beans

1.3) Try These

Hunter” is a classic variety of climbing French bean. Treat it right and it’ll yield masses of long, stringless pods all summer. If you’re going for a dwarf French bean, try “Annabel”. This stringless variety is also well-suited to growing in pots. “The Prince” is another popular dwarf variety, which produces flat pods.

Lesson 2: Sowing French Beans

2.1) Warm Start

French beans are susceptible to cold, so shouldn’t be planted outside if there is any danger of frost. By May, though, the soil should be warm enough to give your seedlings a good start. Use a rake to create a fine “tilth” – a crumbly surface soil that’s ready for sowing. Peg out a length of garden twine as a guide and create a 5cm-deep drill, or sowing channel. If you’re growing a dwarf variety, sow the seeds every 7.5cm. Space your rows 45cms apart. French beans have a high germination rate but, just in case one or two don’t come up, sow a few spares at the end of the row.

2.2) Sowing Climbers

Climbing French beans are sown at the same depth as dwarf beans but the seeds should be spaced around 10cm apart. Climbers will need 60cm between rows. Sow an even number of rows. Traditionally, some gardeners soak beans seeds before sowing. Avoid this tactic: it can lead to a bacterial condition known as Halo Blight. Cover, firm and label your row. Don’t forget to water your new plantings if conditions are dry.

Sowing Beans

2.3) Tepee Technique

One attractive way to support climbing French beans is to train them up a tepee of garden canes. You’ll need to make your tepee first, so that you’ll know where to plant the seeds. Take four or five 2.4m canes, lash them together at the top and push them into the ground in a circle, 30cm apart. Sow two seeds 5cm deep at the base of each cane. Things can get rather crowded at the top of the tepee and pods in this apex area are more difficult to harvest. Growing beans in rows will make life easier. But the tepee option is good when space is limited and the construction certainly has visual impact.

Lesson 3: Nurturing French Bean Seedlings

3.1) Seedling Care

Under normal conditions, French bean seedlings emerge from the ground between 10 and 14 days after sowing. Fill any gaps with the end-of-row spares, once the seedlings are big enough to handle. If you’re growing climbers using the tepee method, remove the less robust seedling from the base of each cane. Keep down weeds by regular hoeing. Water the seedlings regularly until they’re established. Once they are sturdy, don’t water them unless the weather is dry. Start watering them again when the flowers appear. Too much water when French beans are young encourages leaf-growth at the expense of flowers and pods.

Growing Beans

3.2) Support Systems

If you’re growing climbers in rows, it’s time to sort out some support. Push 2.4m canes into the ground every 15cms. Gather them in pairs from adjacent rows and secure them at the top with horizontal canes. (Now you know why you planted an even number of rows!) You should end up with cane “tunnels”. String garden twine along the sides of the “tunnels” for extra support. Theoretically, dwarf varieties don’t need support but, if you leave them entirely to their own devices, they may end up dragging their pods in the dirt. So, an informal system of light support using twiggy sticks can be helpful.

3.3) Earthing Up

When dwarf French bean seedlings turn into young plants, “earth up” the lower stalks to give them more support. Earthing up simply means gently heaping soil around the base of the plant. It’s a good idea to mulch dwarf and climbing varieties with organic material. As well as retaining moisture and keeping down weeds, the mulch will add some extra nutrients to the crop. If you like, you can add a layer of clean straw at the base of the plants for lower pods to rest on. Slugs can threaten seedlings and young plants. Protect seedlings with bottomless plastic water bottles. Surround older plants with grit or serrated rings cut from larger plastic bottles.

Lesson 4: Looking After French Beans

4.1) Flower Power

As your French bean seedlings mature into young plants, flowers will develop. This is the point at which to start watering on a regular basis, rather than only when the weather is dry. This will encourage more flowers (and hence more pods) to form. Water carefully at the roots of the plants. Try not to splash the foliage. If you are growing climbers check that they are being supported adequately. Add extra horizontal lengths of twine if necessary.

Black Aphids

4.2) Feeding Beans

Many gardeners recommend the use of liquid tomato feed to encourage French beans to produce more pods. Try fortnightly applications. Once the plants have reached the top of their supports, pinch out any growing tips. You want them to concentrate on producing pods, not growing beyond their supports. This is also a good time to think about sowing a fresh crop if you’re growing dwarf varieties. Dwarf French beans tend to produce all their pods at once, so re-sowing at monthly intervals will ensure a regular supply all summer. Climbers naturally go on producing pods until the beginning of autumn.

4.3) Uninvited Guests

French beans are a favourite among home vegetable growers. The trouble is, they’re popular with aphids, too. Green or black aphids can form colonies on growing shoots. Once established, they can weaken and distort growth. If you don’t want to use chemical insecticides (after all, the whole point of home-grown veggies is their natural qualities), rub off early colonies as soon as you spot them. Or you can try blasting them off with a spray of water. Keeping weeds down will make the area less attractive to aphids. Another approach is to encourage predators, such as ladybirds, lacewings and hover flies. The larvae of these creatures love a good feast of aphids! Growing asters, chrysanthemums, marigolds and sedums will attract friendly pest predators.

Lesson 5: Harvesting French Beans

5.1) Quench Their Thirst

French beans are ready for harvesting between 8 and 12 weeks after sowing. Keeping the crop well-watered at this time – and on into late summer – is vital. French beans suffer if they’re allowed to become too thirsty. If you’re growing a dwarf variety, don’t forget that it’s still not too late to sow a few more seeds, to ensure the harvest continues into early autumn.

5.2) Get Picking

There are two vital rules about harvesting French beans: pick young and pick often. Young French bean pods are far tastier than mature pods, which are stringy and dull in flavour. The pods you pick should be smooth in appearance and ought to snap easily when you bend them. If you can see bean-shapes bulging along the pods, they are past their best. The most effective way to encourage more young pods to form is to get out there and pick frequently. This is especially important if you’re growing climbing varieties. Frequent picking accelerates the plant’s natural tendency to produce pods over a long period. Don’t pull too hard on the plant when you’re harvesting. You may find it easier to use a pair of scissors.

Harvesting French Beans

5.3) Blight Fright

Apart from slugs and aphids (see Lessons 3 and 4), the most likely problem you’ll encounter is halo blight. This bacterial condition emerges after cold, wet periods and produces brown spots surrounded by yellow “halos” on the plant’s leaves. The spots become water-soaked and go on to infect the pods, too. Older gardening books recommend spraying infected plants with fungicide but many of today’s experts disagree. The sprays are often ineffective and may even encourage the bacteria to become resistant. A safer – not to say more organic – course of action is to cut your losses and destroy infected plants immediately. Prevention is better than cure. Always use top-quality seeds, practise good garden hygiene and avoid overcrowding.

Lesson 6: Harvesting and Drying Late French Beans

6.1) Bean Bounty

Your earlier sowings should be producing plenty of pods by now. Give the crop lots of water and don’t forget that the more pods you pick, the more pods the plants will produce. This is as true of climbers as it is of dwarf varieties. If you’re faced with a glut of beans and you’ve already given away loads to your friends, you can freeze a few batches. Top and tail them in the normal way and blanch in boiling water for three minutes before cooling and freezing.

6.2) Cool Climbers

As summer turns into autumn, cooler weather will present some challenges to late-cropping climbers. Protect them by mulching with straw. Dwarf varieties can also be harvested late, provided that they are protected. Sow in late July for an October harvest. In mid-September, protect the young plants with cloches. Cloches are transparent frames that keep crops warm by making the most of weak sunlight and the plants’ own heat. Garden centres sell basic cloches or you can buy collapsible poly-tunnels that will do the job just as well.

6.3) Bone Dry

Did you know that the beans inside French bean pods become haricot beans when they are dried? If you fancy brightening up the odd winter day with a warming casserole of home-grown haricot beans, try drying the last of your crop. Stop picking and wait until all flowering has ceased and the pods have turned golden-brown. Leave the plants alone as long as the weather stays dry. When wet weather threatens, cut the plants at ground level and hang them somewhere dry and airy until the pods are truly brittle and beginning to split. Then shell the beans and dry them out further on a sheet of paper for a few more days. Store them in an airtight container. Don’t forget to compost the old plants so that they will enrich your soil for next year’s crop of home-grown veggies.

Grow Your Own Carrots

Lesson 1: Preparing the Soil

1.1) Get Digging

The secret to successful home-grown carrots starts with good soil preparation. Think about it. If you were a carrot, would you want to force your way down through tightly packed earth in a doomed effort to grow big and strong? No you wouldn’t. So, pick a sunny spot, grab a spade and get digging. Break up clods and aerate the soil, removing any stones. What you’re aiming for is light, crumbly soil that will allow the carrot roots to flourish. If you have very heavy or stony soil, a short-rooted variety might be a better bet. Or you can try growing short-rooted carrots in containers.

1.2) More Preparation

Don’t be tempted to add manure. This will make the soil too rich for carrots. Rake in a light dressing of general fertiliser around a week before you intend to plant your carrots. If you prepare your soil early enough, you can plant carrots in April. But, because it’s important to prepare the soil properly, I suggest that you dig your carrot patch in April and plant in May.

1.3) Try These

Autumn King 2” is a reliable, heavy cropping variety. “Mignon” is a short-rooted carrot that’s great for growing in pots. “Flyaway” is a popular, flavoursome variety that many gardeners choose because of its resistance to carrot fly. There’ll be more on fighting this pesky pest in later modules…

Lesson 2: Sowing Carrots

2.1) Seed Strategy

You may have thought that the hard work was behind you once you finished digging over that carrot patch. The physical graft might be done with but you’ll need to stay alert in the coming weeks if you want to get the best out of your carrot crop. First things first, though: let’s sow the seeds. Rake the earth until it forms a fine “tilth” – crumbly soil that’s ready for sowing. Mark a row with garden twine and create a 2cm-deep drill (channel). Sow thinly – you’re aiming to drop one or two seeds every 2.5cm. Cover and firm the row gently. Label it and water if the weather has been dry. Space rows 15cm apart.

2.2) Getting it Taped

Take care not to sow the tiny seeds too densely. An over-populated carrot drill will cause you problems in a few weeks’ time. If you tend to be a bit butter-fingered, don’t try to sow by scattering seeds directly from the packet. Instead, pour some seeds into the palm of your hand and use the other hand to sow a few at a time. The reason why you need to sow sparsely is to avoid too much thinning out once the seedlings have emerged. The scent of the bruised leaves of thinned-out seedlings can attract pests. Some seed merchants sell carrot seed in tapes of biodegradable paper. They’re spaced so that the resultant seedlings require the minimum of thinning.

2.3) Variety Double Act

Main crop carrots can take 10-16 weeks to mature. In order to begin harvesting earlier, many gardeners choose to sow a fast-maturing carrot at the same time as their main crop variety. Sow the two varieties in alternate rows. Well-tried early varieties include “Amsterdam Forcing”, “Early Nantes” and “Flyaway”.

Lesson 3: Thinning Carrot Seedlings

3.1) Bruising Encounter

Carrot seedlings normally start to appear 2-3 weeks after sowing. Once they’re big enough to handle – around 2.5cm tall – weaker seedlings should be removed. With most vegetables, this thinning-out process merely means making sure the strongest plants are left at the correct distance from each other. When you’re thinning out carrots, however, you need to ensure that you keep any bruising of the seedlings to a minimum. This is because the carrot fly, a major pest, is attracted to the smell of the bruised foliage. Handle the thinning as little as possible. Don’t leave them lying around the vegetable plot – burn or bury them straight away.

3.2) Evening Shift

Many gardeners recommend that you thin carrots in the evening to reduce the likelihood of a carrot fly attack. It’s also believed that firming and watering the remaining seedlings immediately after thinning helps to keep this pest at bay. Whatever steps you’ve taken to reduce the carrot fly threat, aim to leave 5-8cm between your remaining seedlings. Hoe between rows of young carrots to keep weeds down but the plants’ own foliage should discourage weeds as the crop matures. Water regularly.

Carrot Seedlings

3.3) Fly Flighters

Another defence against carrot fly is the use of fine netting. Carrot flies are around 1cm long, so they won’t be able to penetrate the finer netting available from garden centres. What you’re trying to do is to stop the carrot fly laying its eggs in the soil around the base of the seedling: the resultant larvae eat into the roots. Lay the netting over a simple, low frame to protect seedlings. When the carrots are older, trying surrounding them with a vertical fence of fine netting, at least 70cm high. A mulch of grass cuttings has also been known to deter carrot flies – the mulch makes it difficult for the fly to get to the soil to lay its eggs.

Lesson 4: Looking After and Harvesting Young Carrots

Harvesting Young Carrots

4.1) On the Pull

If you adopted the strategy suggested in Lesson 2, you’ll have some early carrots in the ground as well as main crop varieties. Early carrots can be ready for pulling between 7 and 10 weeks after sowing. It’ll probably be a couple of weeks before your early crop is ready but you can start looking out for indications that the roots are becoming mature enough to eat. One tell-tale sign is that the foliage begins to wither. But you might want to enjoy your carrots slightly immature. They’ll be deliciously sweet and crunchy if they’re harvested young. The best strategy is to experiment by pulling a few. Not too many, though!

4.2) A Firm Hand

In the weeks leading up to harvest-time, keep the soil moist by regular watering if the weather is dry. But do try to avoid drenching very dry ground: fluctuations in the water content of the soil can cause carrots to split. A hand fork is a useful tool for lifting carrots without damaging the roots. After lifting, firm and lightly water the disturbed soil to discourage the attentions of carrot flies. Harvesting in the evening will also help guard against these pests. Carrot fly maggots burrow under the surface of the root, causing widespread damage. So, anything you can do to keep them at bay is worth a try.

4.3) Second Time Around

June is a good time to sow main crop carrots for lifting in September and October. If you’ve noticed that your first crop of carrots are dividing in two (a condition known as “fanging”), this means that the ground they were growing in was too stony or that it wasn’t dug over and loosened sufficiently. The carrots are perfectly edible but it’s probably a look you want to avoid. Make sure the ground where you sow your second crop is well loosened. Resist the temptation to add manure to the soil – this can cause fanging, too.

Lesson 5: Harvesting Main Crop Carrots

5.1) Heavy Lifting

Main crop carrots can be ready for lifting from as early as 10 weeks after sowing. But, depending on variety and growing conditions, they can also take as long as 16 weeks. Pulling main crop carrots is often a little more difficult than harvesting early varieties. They’re bigger, they’ve been in the ground longer and the earth is harder. One tip is to water your crop the evening before you intend to harvest it. Another is to use a border fork to loosen the soil around the carrots before lifting. Remember to harvest in the evening to lessen the likelihood of a carrot fly attack. See Lessons 3 and 4 for more on deterring carrot flies.

5.2) Last Chance

Now is your last chance to get some main crop carrot seeds into the ground for use in October. Raising and harvesting summer crops is lots of fun but enjoying home-grown veggies as the first chilly days of autumn arrive has an appeal all of its own. There’ll be more on late-cropping carrots in Lesson 6.

5.3) Comfy Crowns

If your main crop carrots are in the ground and still have a few weeks to go before they’re ready to be lifted, take some time out to check their crowns. Are they sticking out of the ground? If they are, you may be exposing your crop to a fairly common carrot disorder, green top. Green top is caused by the action of sunlight on exposed carrot crowns. Green carrots – unlike green potatoes – aren’t bad for you but they don’t look very nice. You can easily avoid green top by earthing-up over the exposed crowns. Safe under their blanket of soil, they’ll be a perfect orange when you come to harvest them. Enjoy!

Lesson 6: Growing and Protecting Late Carrots

6.1) The Main Attraction

Your main crop carrots should be ready for lifting soon. Trust us, no supermarket carrots will taste anywhere near as good as the ones that you pull from your own garden! Meanwhile, if you sowed a batch of late main crop carrots a fortnight ago, look out for the seedlings: they’ll be emerging soon. Thin them according to the instructions in Lesson 3, taking care not to attract carrot flies. As you clear areas of the vegetable plot by lifting carrots, give some thought to planting a “catch crop”. This term applies to fast-maturing veggies sown in the space left by harvested crops. Radishes or lettuces make excellent catch crops.

6.2) Late Harvest

Did you raise a crop of early carrots? If you did, you’ll know how delicious they can be and you’ll be itching to use them to extend your carrot harvest as late as December. If you didn’t, then now’s your chance! Varieties like “Amsterdam Forcing”, “Early Nantes” and “Flyaway” will all work with this technique. Sow in August and cover the crop with cloches when colder weather arrives in September or early October. Cloches are transparent frames that use the plants’ own heat and any sun there is to keep the crop warm. You can buy simple cloches or collapsible poly-tunnels in garden centres. Allow the roots to grow in the normal way: they’ll be mature in November. At this point, stop watering the crop. The carrots will keep perfectly well in the drying soil and can be pulled when needed.

6.3) Living in a Box

Gardeners who live in very mild parts of the country leave their carrots in the ground over winter. They cover the crop with straw and lift carrots as required. In colder areas, lift all your remaining main crop carrots in October and store them. The time-honoured technique is to twist off the stalks, brush off excess soil and place the carrots in a box of sand. Don’t let them touch and don’t store any unsound roots. Keep the box in a cool, frost-free location. Stored in this fashion, the carrots will keep until early spring.

Grow Your Own Beet Spinach

Perpetual spinach, or beet spinach, is not really spinach at all. It’s related to the beetroot but its leaves are so similar to spinach that they can be cooked the same way, especially when they are picked young. True spinach can be quite tricky to grow but perpetual spinach is much more beginner-friendly. As its name implies, it’s a “cut and come again” vegetable that will supply you with delicious greens all summer.

Lesson 1: Sowing the Seeds

Sowing Beet Spinach

1.1) Steady Performer

Many experienced gardeners find it difficult to stop true spinach “bolting” when exposed to full summer sun. Spinach beet is much more tolerant of open aspects. It’s also a steady performer in ordinary soil, although you’ll get better results if you incorporate well-rotted manure or compost into your plot.

1.2) Sowing Beet Spinach

After raking the soil into a fine tilth (prepared surface soil that’s ready to plant), mark out a row with garden twine and stakes. Use a hoe to make a 2cm-deep “drill” (channel) and sow groups of 3 or 4 seeds at 20-cm intervals. Cover, firm, label and water your new drill. Space drills 35cm-40cm apart. Perpetual spinach’s forgiving nature and all-summer cropping makes it a useful vegetable for containers. Pick a good-sized container around 45cm wide and 45cm deep.

1.3) Try These

Seed suppliers don’t seem to offer named varieties of beet spinach in the way that they do for other vegetables. If you want something a little different, give Swiss chard a try. Another member of the leaf beet family, it has spinach-like leaves and wide, pale, fleshy stalks. It’s as easy to grow as perpetual spinach.

Lesson 2: Nurturing Young Beet Spinach

2.1) First Growth

After beet spinach seeds have been in the ground around a fortnight, the seedlings should start to emerge. If you followed our advice in Lesson 1, the seedlings should be in groups of three or four, 20cm apart. Once they’re big enough to handle, identify the strongest plant in each group. Over a number of days, remove the weaker plants, starting with the weakest. This gives you some options if the “strong” seedling suddenly fails. If you are growing beet spinach in containers, thin the seedlings in the same way.

2.2) Get Weeding

Young beet spinach seedlings need regular weeding to make sure they end up as top dogs in their local patch of earth. So, get your hoe out and put it to work. Don’t wait until weeds are the same size as your seedlings before hoeing. Cut young weeds up before they have a chance to establish themselves. Don’t forget to water your young crop. Beet spinach is a thirsty plant that needs plenty of water to produce juicy leaves all summer.

Beating the Slugs

2.3) Beating the Slugs

Slugs and snails are among the first deadly enemies your young beet spinach seedlings will face. If you don’t want to use pesticide-impregnated slug pellets, try surrounding seedlings with grit or sharp sand. Alternatively, protect seedlings with a serrated ring cut from a plastic water bottle. If you’re feeling really inventive, you can make a slug trap. Cut the shoulder and neck segment off a water bottle. Turn it round and insert the segment neck-first into the bottle body. Tape or staple the two parts together. Fill the trap with a sugary drink and place it invitingly close to your crop. Sit back and admire the results of your cunning plan…

Lesson 3: Maturing Beet Spinach

3.1) Encouraging Leaf Growth

One reason why beet spinach is a good choice for novice gardeners is that is far less likely to “bolt” than true spinach. When conditions are dry and sunny, true spinach can sometimes run to seed before developing any leaves that are worth eating. Beet spinach is much more forgiving in this respect but you still have to be vigilant: keep your eyes open for the formation of flower heads, especially if the weather is dry and sunny. If you do discover any flower heads, remove them immediately. This will encourage the plant to put its energy into growing leaves for you to eat.

3.2) Water, Water Everywhere

When you are cooking spinach it soon becomes obvious that the leaves contain a significant quantity of water. This implies that you’ve got to get plenty of water into the plant while it’s growing. A square metre of beet spinach plants will need at least 9 litres a week in normal conditions – more if the weather is hot and dry. Using a mulch of organic material around your spinach plants will help retain moisture and make life difficult for weeds. A black plastic sheet with holes for the plants will do a similar job. If you’ve decided not to employ a mulching strategy, you’ll need to get busy with your hoe to keep those weeds down.

3.3) Copper Protection

If you are growing beet spinach in containers, the same rules apply: watch out for flower heads, water the plants well and keep weeds down. Slugs can threaten container vegetables as well as conventional beds. They don’t mind climbing up a pot if there’s a juicy meal at the end of it! Protect plants by using the methods in Lesson 2. Alternatively, you can buy copper tape that fixes just under the rim of a pot. The copper tape naturally contains a tiny electrical charge that repels slugs.

Lesson 4: Harvesting Beet Spinach

4.1) Gorgeous Greens

Bagged spinach costs a pretty penny in the supermarket. But, in just a few weeks’ time, you’ll be scoffing platefuls of delicious beet spinach fresh from your garden – and all for next to nothing. Perpetual spinach leaves are normally big enough to harvest by the time the plant has been in the earth for three months. These last few weeks before the harvesting begins are important. Weed carefully, without disturbing the crop. Make sure you have a slug defence strategy in place. And don’t forget to keep up a generous watering regime: your greens will be much healthier and juicier as a result.

4.2) Picking Tips

Pick the outer leaves before they reach their full size. Younger leaves taste better and picking them encourages further growth. Even if you can’t use the spinach in your own kitchen, pick it nevertheless. Give it away to your mates or simply chuck it on the compost heap: saddling the plant with overgrown leaves will inhibit its growth. When harvesting beet spinach leaves, pick as close to the ground as possible and take care not to disturb the plant’s roots. Leave the centre foliage intact: the outer leaves of this section will become your next harvest “targets”.

4.3) Fresh is Best

Beet spinach is an excellent substitute for true spinach but its leaves are stronger in taste than its more delicate namesake. Younger leaves have a gentler flavour – another reason why it makes sense to pick the leaves while they’re still slightly immature. This crop does not keep well. Ideally, you should eat what you’ve picked on the same day. If you’re obliged to keep beet spinach, wash the leaves and put them in a polythene food bag. They will keep for a couple of days in the fridge.

Lesson 5: Preventing Beet Spinach Diseases

5.1) Keep on Picking

Once beet spinach plants are producing leaves on a regular basis, your main challenge might well turn out to be harvesting them fast enough! But don’t be tempted to leave older leaves unpicked. Regular picking encourages vigorous growth. One reason many gardeners choose to grow beet spinach instead of true varieties is because it’s far less prone to disease. Slugs can be a nuisance with younger plants (see lessons 2 and 3 for slug-busting tips) but beet spinach is generally only vulnerable to two diseases. And the good news is that you can reduce this vulnerability by good growing practices.

5.2) Spot Checks

Leaf spot is a fungus that attacks beet spinach, brassicas and beetroot. Older leaves develop round, brown spots that often wither completely, forming holes. A wet summer tends to make beet spinach more susceptible to this unsightly and destructive fungus. You can’t do much about the weather but you can influence the other main cause of leaf spot: inadequate thinning. Overcrowding is a no-no if you want nice, clean spinach leaves. Of course, picking spinach leaves while they’re still relatively young is another way of reducing the chance of leaf spot attack.

5.3) Rough Patches

Beet spinach can also be vulnerable to downy mildew, a disease more common in true spinach. Yellow patches form on the upper leaf surface and purple mould grows below. As with leaf spot, wet, chilly weather is a warning sign that problems could be on the way. And, in another echo of leaf spot, downy mildew is also more likely if you haven’t thinned the crop properly. If your crop is attacked by either downy mildew or leaf spot, remove the affected leaves immediately and destroy them. But prevention is far better than cure, so keep an eye on your plant spacing.

Grow Your Own Radishes

Lesson 1: Preparing to Sow

1.1) Basic Preparation

Just because radishes are an obliging lot doesn’t mean that you should ignore the basics. Pick a sunny – but not too sunny – spot. Radishes like the sun but they run to seed if they get too much of it. For best results, the radish plot should be dug over at least a month before sowing. But you won’t be the first novice gardener to dig immediately prior to planting radishes. Just make sure you get rid of any stones. Don’t add manure to the soil but do water it. You want a moist seedbed.

1.2) Sowing Strategy

Use a rake to break up the soil, creating a fine “tilth” (surface soil that’s ready to plant). Mark out a row with garden twine and stakes, creating a channel (the correct gardening word is a “drill”) around 1cm-1.5cm deep. Sow your radish seeds thinly in this drill, cover with soil and firm. If you’re planting more than one row, position them 15cm apart. Don’t forget to label your rows. Congratulations! You’ve just sown your first crop. You can now stroll around the local garden centre with your head held high. And, if Alan Titchmarsh comes on the telly, you’re at liberty to nod sagely as he disseminates vegetable lore.

Scarlet Globe
French Breakfast

1.3) Try These

Scarlet Globe” is a traditional, spherical variety that is especially quick to mature – a handy characteristic if you’re growing radishes with children. “Cherry Belle” can stay in the ground without spoiling for a little longer than other varieties. A popular, reliable radish, “French Breakfast” has a cylindrical shape and a cracking flavour.

Lesson 2: Thinning Radish Seedlings

2.1) Rapid Progress

Radishes are quick to please. Under normal conditions, the first seedlings appear in less than a week. After around 10 days, you should have a row of fair-sized seedlings. Nothing beats the excitement of following these first days of a crop’s progress. And, if this is your first stab at growing your own veg, that excitement is very special indeed. Enjoy the moment!

2.2) Making Room

Mind you, this is no time to sit on your laurels. There’s work to be done if you want to raise a crop of perfect radishes. All young plants need room to breathe in order to develop properly. Once they’re big enough to handle (usually 10-14 days), examine the row of seedlings and identify strong-looking plants around 2.5 cm apart. Remove the weaker ones, taking care not to disturb your target seedlings. Don’t forget to water the young plants. If you’re experiencing wet weather, there’s no need to get your watering can out. But, during dry spells, you’ll need to water them at least once a week. Attach a fine sprinkler head to your watering can, to avoid washing away the seedlings before you get a chance to eat them.

2.3) Eliminating Competitors

If radishes don’t like being crowded out by their own kind, they certainly don’t take kindly to competing with weeds for precious resources. Keeping weeds down is about more than just making your vegetable plot look tidy. Every weed in the ground is hogging nutrition that could be going towards making your veggies big and strong. So, show no mercy! Use a hoe to chop up young weeds before they can take hold. If you’re confronted with a deep-rooted weed, use a trowel or hand fork to dig deep and remove the whole plant, including the root. Don’t put deep-rooted weeds into your own compost: they’ll cause problems if you do.

Lesson 3: Harvesting Your First Radishes

3.1) It’s That Time Already

Radishes don’t hang around. If you’re a first-time vegetable grower, the moment you’ve been waiting for could be here! Many radish varieties are ready to harvest after a month so, if you sowed your seeds in late April, it’s time to pull a few for sampling. Radishes are best eaten when young. If they’re left in the ground too long, they start to develop a woody texture and eventually become hollow. In addition, the flavour deteriorates from a lively tang to an unappealing bitterness. Round radishes are ready when they’re about 2cm in diameter. Cylindrical varieties such as “French Breakfast” should be picked when they’re a similar thickness but no longer than your thumb.

3.2) Beating the Birds

One reason why radishes are so popular with novice gardeners is that their rapid progress to maturity means you have another chance to get things right if there have been difficulties with an initial crop. Juicy young radish seedlings can be vulnerable to birds, who always have an eye open for what’s on offer in the vegetable garden. If birds were a problem for your first crop, sow a second batch of seeds and use netting to keep those hungry beaks at bay. Garden centres sell all sorts of netting, which you can drape over some short canes. There are more tips on tackling pests in the next lesson.

3.3) Second Go

Re-sowing a second batch of radishes is a good idea, however successful the initial crop was. After all, if your first lot of radishes was a hit, you’ll want to repeat it! Sow a second crop of seeds in the same way as the first. Continue to sow more seeds at fortnightly intervals until August to ensure an uninterrupted supply of radishes all summer.

Lesson 4: Harvesting and Protecting Radishes

4.1) Next Generation

You may well have finished harvesting your first crop of radishes by now. If you haven’t, give them away to family and friends rather than leave them in the ground. Radishes should be eaten young and they don’t keep for long, either. Meanwhile, if you planted a second crop a fortnight ago, the seedlings should be ready for thinning to 2.5cm gaps. Look after them as you did for the first crop but check out the advice below for strategies to combat pests and diseases. It’s also time to sow a third crop. Re-sowing at fortnightly intervals is the best way to ensure a constant supply of radishes all summer.

4.2) Trails and Tribulations

There is nothing more dispiriting for the novice gardener than finding slug trails all over your young crop. But you can fight back! If you don’t want to resort to chemical deterrents, try surrounding the plants with grit or sharp sand. Cover seedlings with bottomless plastic water bottles. Cut serrated plastic rings from larger bottles to defend bigger plants. A homemade slug trap can work wonders. Slice a plastic water bottle in two just below the neck. Turn the neck bit round and insert it into the body. Tape or staple the two parts together. Fill the trap with sugary liquid and place it near your veggies. If you’re growing radishes in a pot, try sticking copper tape (available from garden centres) just below the rim. Copper naturally carries a slight electrical charge that discourages slugs.

4.3) Preventing Pests

Unfortunately, slugs aren’t the only pests you’ll face, although radishes don’t have as many enemies as some vegetables. Flea beetles attack the leaves of seedlings, leaving small, round holes. They are attracted to dry plants, so keeping your crop well-watered is a good deterrent. Cabbage root flies attack the roots, causing stunted growth and a bluish discolouring of the leaves. The best prevention is to surround the plant with a disc of strong black plastic or a stout material like roofing felt. This stops the flies laying eggs in the soil around the roots.

Lesson 5: Extending Your Radish Harvest

5.1) Catch Me If You Can

One of the advantages of a quick-growing vegetable like the radish is that it can occupy space left by other crops but still have enough time to mature by the end of summer. This type of vegetable-growing is known as “catch-cropping”. You can use this technique if you’re also following our lettuce-growing course, for example. Once your cos lettuces have finished, sow radishes in the space left behind. (This doesn’t work for cut and come again loose-leaf varieties, of course: they’ll be in the ground all summer.) Be aware that radishes can suffer if they’re exposed to too much midsummer sun. But lettuces are best grown in an area with some shade, anyway, so this catch-crop twinning is a good combination.

5.2) Late Summer Bounty

Even if you’re not employing a catch-cropping technique, now is a good time to sow a few more radishes for harvesting towards the end of the summer. As with catch-cropping, just make sure you don’t choose too sunny a spot. Very warm and dry conditions can result in over-hot radishes that fail to form a proper bulb.

5.3) Solving Problems

Radishes are one of the easiest veggies to grow successfully, so you’re unlikely to have had too many problems so far. But difficulties do arise. Sometimes, bulbs fail to mature properly. This can be because of hot, dry conditions (see above). Another cause is that they haven’t been thinned properly. If they’re too close together, the radishes will be competing for scarce resources. Check the correct thinning distances given in Lesson 2. If the bulbs are cracked, they have been in the ground too long before being harvested. An uneven watering regime can also cause this condition. Don’t let the ground around your crop dry out and then water them enthusiastically. You’ll be setting yourself up for a bunch of cracked radishes.

Lesson 6: Growing Winter Radishes

You may still have some summer radishes in the ground, ready for harvesting in a few weeks’ time. But there’s no reason why your radish-growing experience has to stop at the end of the summer. Why not have a go at raising winter radishes? These robust members of the radish family come in many varieties. Most of them pack a punch in the flavour department and their hardiness means that you can go on enjoying home-grown produce well into the winter months.

6.1) Deep and Even

Sowing winter radishes is broadly the same as sowing summer varieties but you need to bear one significant factor in mind. Winter radishes are much larger than their dinky summer cousins. So the seedbed must contain fine, even soil to a depth of at least 30cm. The plants also need to be further apart if they are to develop properly. In late July or early August, sow groups of 3 or 4 seeds at 15cm intervals in 2cm-deep drills. Space the drills 30cm apart. After 7-10 days, or when the seedlings are big enough to handle, remove the weaker seedlings, leaving one strong young plant every 15cm.

6.2) Boxed-Up

Look after young winter radishes in the same way as summer varieties. Water and weed the seedlings carefully. Keep slugs at bay. The bushy foliage will help keep weeds down once the plants are bigger. Winter radishes are usually ready to eat 10-12 weeks after sowing. They can stay in the ground longer, provided that you cover their crowns with straw or similar material. Many gardeners prefer to lift their winter radishes in October or November and store them. Twist off the foliage, rub off the dirt and put them in a box of sand. Place the box in a cool, frost-free location and the radishes will keep for months.

6.3) Try These

“China Rose” is a popular winter radish. The oval roots grow up to 15cm long. “Mino Early” radishes are 30cm long, slim and white. The mild flavour makes them useful for winter salads. Red-fleshed “Mantanghong” is an attractive variety that can be used for both cooking and salads.