Starting with stocks

May 31st, 2019 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Double flowered stock (Matthiola)

Stocks seem to have become unfashionable. It’s all a bit mad, really, because stocks provide some of the most beautiful, most fragrant and longest lasting of cut flowers. But the best of them are tall, they need support and it can be fiddly to work out which of the seedlings produce the beautiful double flowers and which don’t. So they’re hard to find in catalogues.

The ones that you can get hold of with no trouble at all are the shorter ones such as ‘Brompton’ stocks, which are genuine biennials, and even shorter ones (‘Hot Cakes’ and ‘Ten Week’) which are usually grown as half hardy annuals.

Sow the taller, 45cm,‘Brompton’ stocks now or over the next month. There’s enough seed in the packet (150 seeds) that you can sow them in a row outside, thin them to 10-15cm, then either transplant alternate plants and leave the rest in place or move them all and plant them 20cm apart. If your soil is heavy then raise them in pots and plant them out in the spring.

Raise ‘Cinderella’ in the same way or, along with the short ‘Hot Cakes’ and ‘Ten Week’, wait till the spring and treat them as short-term half hardy annuals.

Either way, choose a sunny site for all of them with fertile but well-drained soil. ‘Brompton’ will need support as the flower stems extend in spring, a slim green cane to each one is usually enough. They’re best cut and brought inside where you can enjoy their colour and their wonderful fragrance.

Growing Kale from Sowing to Harvest

May 30th, 2019 | News | 0 Comments


Growing Kale from Sowing to Harvest

There’s one undisputed king of the winter vegetable garden – kale! It’s packed with goodness, is remarkably hardy, will carry on cropping throughout most of the winter – and it isn’t half good looking! If you’re looking to grow this hard-working beauty now’s the time to get started. Read on or watch the video for our sowing-to-harvest guide to kale.

Types of Kale

Kale is a stunning vegetable with varieties that offer a choice of frothy, frilled leaves, crinkled leaves, and flatter leaves suitable for both cooking and salads. And then there’s the opportunity to grow red or purple kale, which we reckon wouldn’t look out of place in any ornamental border.

Kale is best sown from late spring to early summer, which makes it the perfect choice to follow on from earlier crops such as garlic, broad beans or early salads.

Where to Grow Kale

Hardy kale is the most reliable crop of the cabbage familyHardy kale is the most reliable crop of the cabbage family. It stands up to frosts with ease and thrives in just about any well-drained, fertile soil. Give it a sunny position in order to encourage stronger growth during the dark winter months.

Like cabbage, kale grows best when well fed. Add plenty of compost to the ground before planting and if your soil isn’t especially rich, top up its fertility by applying a balanced organic fertiliser such as chicken manure pellets a week or two before planting.

How to Sow Kale

Kale needs plenty of room to develop properly. To make the most of the space you have it’s almost always better to start plants off in plug trays or pots. This way you can get seedlings growing while other crops are still in the ground. Once you’ve harvested the previous crop, your sturdy young kale seedlings will be ready to plant.

Fill plug trays or small pots with multipurpose potting soil. Firm it in with your fingertips then make holes about half an inch (1cm) deep. Sow two seeds per plug or pot, cover, and water. Should two seedlings grow remove the weaker of the two.

Depending on how soon you plan on planting your kale, you may need to pot your seedlings on into larger containers. Then, about a week before planting, start moving plants outside so they can acclimatise. Leave them out for gradually longer periods until they’re staying out all day and night.

Transplanting Kale

Space the young plants about 18in (45cm) apart. Dig a hole, pop the plant in and backfill with soil. Kale needs to be well anchored, so be sure to properly firm the plants into position so that the rootballs are in good contact with the soil. Thoroughly water once you’re done.

Kale that will be harvested for smaller salad leaves can be planted closer to leave about 10in (25cm) between plants.

Caring for Kale

Butterfly netting stops butterflies from laying their eggs on your kale plants so that caterpillars won’t get a chance to damage cropsKeep plants well watered and weeded, especially during the summer as they settle in and establish. Remove damaged or yellowing leaves as they appear.

Kale tends to be less prone to the catalog of pests and diseases that afflict other cabbage family crops. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a few precautions against possible attack.

Slugs sometimes prove a nuisance in wetter climates, but they are easily picked off by hand and you can always set slug traps to limit their numbers. If you find that pigeons are tearing at the leaves then set up bird deterrent tape or install barriers of netting supported on, for example, canes with upturned bottles on the ends. Make sure the netting is properly secured at the ground. Butterfly netting also stops butterflies from laying their eggs on your plants so that caterpillars won’t get a chance to decimate your crop.

Whitefly can occasionally turn up. They are easily identified as tiny white triangles that readily take to the air when disturbed. Fuzzy gray cabbage aphids are another common problem. Insect mesh or row covers are a simple way to protect plants. Most pests die off after the first frosts, leaving plants clear and blemish-free once more.

How to Harvest Kale

Harvesting usually begins in the autumn. Pull or twist leaves down and away from the plant, or use a knife to cut the leaves off.

Harvest every few days by taking one or two leaves from each plant so that the central inner rosette of leaves remains untouched. By the end of the following spring kale plants will have grown quite tall as a result of this regular harvesting. When they stretch to flower they can be removed to the compost heap or left as an extra source of nectar for pollinators such as butterflies and bees.

Kale is one of those crops that just keeps on giving, making it a worthy addition to any vegetable garden. Are you growing kale this season? What variety are you growing, and how do you make the most of it in the kitchen? Comment below or head over to our Facebook and Twitter page.

More space, more shopping at this year’s Chelsea

May 24th, 2019 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Okra and Orlaya

Down at the Chelsea Flower Show this week, seed has been flying off the Mr Fothergill’s stand. I spoke to Mr F’s David Turner, who’s been talking to show goers and answering their questions.

“We’ve sold more seed this year than in the last two years,” David told me, “and we’ve had some storming afternoons. And usually at Chelsea sales of flower seeds outstrips the veg but veg has been on top this year and we’ve had a surprising number of enquiries for okra.” Okra features on the Giving Girls in Africa a Space to Grow garden for CAMFED (the Campaign For Female Education), an African charity backed by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

“The RHS range of Award of Garden Merit seeds has done especially well this year with people asking for Ammi and rose campion in particular. And Orlaya, another informal white flowered annual, has also been popular.

“We also had a visit from Pudsey supporting our two children’s varieties, Sunflower ‘Pudsey’ and Pumpkin ‘Pudsey’, that raise funds for BBC Children in Need and his visit featured in the TV coverage.”

The other product that has gone well is Seasol, the organic seaweed concentrate plant tonic that promotes healthy growth of plants, flowers, vegetables and even lawns. I use it on my outdoor tomatoes and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons they develop such huge root systems.

Personally, I think one of the reasons sales have gone well is that the show is less crowded, more spacious this year and so visitors feel more relaxed and happier about carrying their purchases around. So they’ve bought more.

You can catch up on the last of the TV coverage of the Show today from 7:30pm-8pm on BBC One then from 8:30pm-9:30pm on BBC Two and finally tomorrow night from 8pm-9pm on BBC Two. Enjoy the show – in person or on TV.

Our future invaders

May 17th, 2019 | Plant Talk with Graham Rice | 0 Comments

Gunnera tinctoria

Amongst the dazzling colours of the Great Pavilion at next week’s Chelsea Flower Show, there’s a quieter and more reflective area that can be missed by visitors and TV cameras alike.

The Discovery Zone is the area for new ideas and new research and new science, the fresh thinking that will soon be reflected in the rest of the Great Pavilion and in gardening more generally.

Invasive species pose a threat to our native plants in their wild habitats, and at the University of Reading Tomos Jones has been looking at garden plants that might escape from our gardens and become invasive in the future. One surprising example is the giant rhubarb, Gunnera tinctoria. His Chelsea exhibit Ornamental plants: our future invaders explains.

“Invasive ornamental plants are often beautiful but they can have a range of detrimental ecological impacts,” said Tomos. “For example, giant rhubarb can grow over 2m tall and has huge leaves. It can out-compete other plants for resources, with very few others surviving in its shadow.”

Introduced to gardens from South America in the nineteenth century, it was first found in the wild in 1908 but is now increasingly seen in wet places, especially in the south. One flower head can produce 250,000 seeds so the potential for spread is clear.

“Gardeners have an important role in preventing and managing invasive plants,” continued Tomos. “They can be the first to observe plants showing signs of invasive characteristics. The information we collect from gardeners will help us identify and control species before they become a problem.”

The plant I’ve noticed that seems to be moving out of gardens is the Mediterranean Euphorbia characias. It’s starting to colonise village roadsides in my area of Northamptonshire and is also established on a roundabout on the M25 near Heathrow airport (below)!

You can contribute to this research by reporting your own experience of potentially problematic ornamental plants.

Tomos Jones said: “Many ornamental plants favoured by gardeners for their beauty have the ability to escape beyond the garden fence and have a damaging effect on the environment.

“Invasive plants that are not managed or disposed of responsibly can spread quickly and dominate landscapes, to the detriment of native species. We are asking the public to help identify plants showing invasive characteristics.” So have a chat with Tomos at the Show, or complete this online survey.

And don’t forget to take a look at the Mr F Chelsea stand. Why not stop by and say hello on stand EA475 on Eastern Avenue.

Euphorbia characias near Heathrow airport


10 Unusual Vegetables for Adventurous Gardeners

May 14th, 2019 | News | 1 Comment

The almost-impossibly vibrant watermelon radish is a stunning winter radish

Growing our own food gives us the opportunity to taste produce as fresh and healthy as it’s possible to get. It also means zero food miles and, if we choose, the chance to grow food with fewer artificial fertilisers and pesticides. But the really exciting reason to grow more of your own is the chance to try something different. There are many quirky crops out there just waiting to be discovered. So if you fancy trying something new, read on or watch the video for our top 10 unusual vegetables to shake things up in the garden.

1. Cardoon

Let’s start with a real monster of a vegetable! Closely related to globe artichoke and with similarly striking thistle-like blooms, cardoons are in fact grown for their incredible architectural stems. Looking a lot like super-sized celery, the earthy stems are delicious served up in a gratin. Cardoon needs lots of space, sunshine and a free-draining soil.

2. Shiso PerillaShiso perilla is more commonly associated with Japanese cuisine, where it’s used in tempuras and sushi

This leafy exotic is more commonly associated with Japanese cuisine, where it’s used in tempuras and sushi. The taste conjures up a curious mix of herbs, from mint to basil, as well as spices such as cinnamon. Red-leaved shiso perilla is a stunner, but it’s the green form that wins on flavour.

3. Oca

Oca is a member of the wood sorrel family, and certainly has its distinctive leaf shape. The leaves can be eaten in moderation but the real treat lies beneath the ground. Oca tubers are rich in vitamin C and may be eaten raw, or cooked in exactly the same ways as potato. Oca is planted in spring with the tubers forming in early autumn.

4. Celeriac

It tastes like a nutty version of celery but is more often mashed like potato – meet celeriac. This hardy, versatile winter root may also be grated raw, boiled or braised, or cut it into cubes and drop it into stews or soups. With young plants going in from spring, this is the perfect follow-on crop for ground recently vacated by other winter staples.

Malabar spinach is an Asian vine with pretty red stems and delicious, fleshy leaves5. Malabar Spinach

This culinary climber is Malabar spinach, an Asian vine with pretty red stems and delicious, fleshy leaves that are perfect in salads or stir-fried. A perennial, grown as an annual in regions prone to frost, Malabar spinach loves rich, fertile soil and grows best in full sun.

6. Kohlrabi

Next up – kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is an almost alien-looking vegetable that’s used in similar ways to turnip. The ‘bulbs’ are in fact swollen stems and taste like tender broccoli. They grow best from the second half of summer and should be harvested before they reach tennis ball size. We love them sliced then baked into healthy fries.

7. Seakale

Let’s take a look at another member of the brassica family – seakale. This quirky perennial needs a permanent bed like rhubarb or asparagus. Seakale is forced into growth in winter and early spring using special forcing pots to give one of the earliest harvests of the season. The tender, pale stems that follow are a real delicacy and cooked just like asparagus. This maritime native prefers free-draining soils.

8. AmaranthAmaranth is also known as ‘love-lies-bleeding'

Move over quinoa, there’s a new grain on the block! Also known as ‘love-lies-bleeding’ – you can see why in the picture – amaranth seeds are full of hugely healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Amaranth grows well in most soils and prefers a warm, sunny spot. Look out for the variety ‘Red Callaloo’ too, grown for its versatile and nutritious leaves.

9. Winter Radish

Round, red radishes are a summer staple, but did you know there’s a whole other side to the humble radish? Just as easy to grow as their summer cousins, winter radishes include the mild-flavored daikon often used in Asian cuisines, the tender-if-formidable-looking ‘Black Spanish’ radish, and the almost-impossibly vibrant watermelon radish. What a stunner!

10. Salsify & Scorzonera

Two very similar vegetables take up our final slot. Salsify and scorzonera both enjoy light, well-drained soil and a sunny, open position. They don’t look like much above ground, but that’s no problem because it’s the super-hardy roots we’re after, which have a delicate, sweet flavour reminiscent of oysters! Lift them as needed from autumn onwards to enjoy boiled or grated raw.

Be adventurous and try a few of these tasty eccentrics – they’ll certainly bring something new to the dinner table. If you’ve grown any of them before please share your experiences by commenting below or head over to our Facebook and Twitter page.