Root crops come in all shapes, sizes and colours these days. Helen Billiald has some delicious suggestions to grow for the table
When was the last time you tried a new root crop? We seem happy to play around with novel Oriental leaves, unusual fruit and herbs, but strangely reticent to give different subterranean crops a go. But with all the new choices available, now’s the perfect time to broaden your gardening horizons and root out some of the following.
Turnips don’t have a glamorous reputation but turnip hybrid ‘Tokyo Cross’ has been wooing chefs and gardeners canny enough to try it. You harvest the sweet white roots when they’re golf-ball sized. They’re delicious raw (yes really) and great in stir-fries, salads or soups. Sow from April to September and they’ll be ready in as little as 35 days. They like a fertile soil with steady access to moisture.
Similar in name but different in taste is turnip-rooted parsley, also known as Hamburg parsley. The flavour is tricky to describe; a cross between parsnip, parsley, celeriac and carrot, while the leaves are like a sturdy flat-leaf parsley. The roots aren’t as big as parsnips but I find them easier to germinate and they sit quietly into the winter waiting to be used. Sow from March to May and you can harvest from September onwards, they’re particularly good roasted.
Salsify is one of those roots I return to every few years because I’m keen for another hit of its delicate and appealing but rather strange flavour. Beautiful in creamy gratins it’s lovely roasted too. The roots are long and slim (winkling them out of the ground can be tricky) and they discolour once peeled, so pop them in water and lemon juice if you want to stop them going brown. They’re sometimes called oyster plant but I’ve never detected that flavour; I’d put them closer to globe artichoke. Sow in spring into deep, well-drained soil and harvest from October. They keep well over winter in the ground so harvest only as needed.
Coloured carrots are nothing new, but some of the differently shaded cultivars provoke intense debate over differences in flavour. Try ‘Night Bird’ for long purple-black roots with an intense colour that goes to the core. Or, go for an extra sweet root with the yellow ‘Jaune Obtuse de Doubs’ or the super sweet cream ‘Creampak’ F1. Sow carrots from April to June into a deep, free-draining soil and cover with fine mesh to prevent carrot fly.
A swollen stem rather than a root, kohl rabi is nonetheless often lumped into root veg territory. Actually it’s a brassica and remains woefully undervalued in this country. The aim is to grow it fast in lovely rich soil and harvest when young. I use it grated into coleslaw for a sweet, mild cabbage-cum-broccoli taste. Sow direct from March to July and watch out for slugs and snails who love the seedlings. Try ‘Azure Star’.
An overlooked root that I’m rather fond of is horseradish. A good roast seems incomplete without its pungent hit. The plants are thugs so you need to site them carefully. They like damp ground and often seem to end up hidden at the end of a garden near a compost heap. Plant the thongs (bare roots) in March or April, potting them up first if the weather is frightful. Harvest once the weather cools in autumn and winter. Digging up plants (as best you can) and replanting healthy roots will stop it spreading too far and keep the plant youthful.
Finally, for an easy, unusual and incredibly bountiful harvest in a fertile sunny site, make this the year you try yacon . Its beautiful late summer and autumn foliage looks pitch perfect in a tropical border. Once the leaves are knocked back by frost (like a dahlia), dig up the tubers. You’ll find two types: enormous baking-potato sized tubers to eat, and little knobbly growing-tip tubers, nearer the surface, that you can store in a frost-free shed over winter. I put mine in barely damp potting compost, then bring them back into growth in a greenhouse container the following spring and plant out after all risk of frost. The tubers are a sweet, crunchy delight, like a cross between water chestnuts and pear that I use in salads and stir-fries.
Helen’s rooty picks
Turnip ‘Tokyo Cross’ £1.79 for 400 seeds Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk
Hamburg parsley £1.49 for 1000 seeds DT Browns 0333 003 0869; www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk
Salsify ‘Mammoth’ £1.49 for 120 seeds Unwins 0844 573 8400; www.unwins.co.uk
Carrot ‘Night Bird’ £3.49 for 200 seeds Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200; www.suttons.co.uk
Carrot ‘Jaune Obtuse de Doubs’ £2.22 for 400 seeds Real Seeds 01239 821107; www.realseeds.co.uk
Carrot ‘Creampak’ F1 £2.49 for 400 seeds Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk
Kohl rabi ‘Azure Star’ £1.99 for 100 seeds Marshalls Seeds; 0844 557 6700 www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Horseradish £9.99 for 5 thongs Marshalls Seeds 0844 557 6700; www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Purple Skinned yacon £9.99 for 6 super plugs Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200; www.suttons.co.uk
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If you think growing veg is too hard, why not try these easy annuals? By Helen Billiald
1. Cut and come again salad leaves
This isn’t one crop, but a type of crop – offering lots of tasty salad leaves that can be grown pretty much all year round. Cut and come again seed mixes are a beautiful thing, giving you baby leaves that can be sweet, spicy or fragrant depending on the mix. Look out for ‘Speedy Mix’ (£2.69 for 500 seeds from Thompson and Morgan) and Salad Leaf Herb Mix (£1.99 for seed to fill a 7.5m/25ft row, from Marshalls) to name just a couple.
Sow the seeds direct into warm soil from spring onwards. Your soil type and where you live will dictate whether this is in March or April. (Look for the tell-tale clues of weed seeds starting to germinate.) Sow in rows, 15cm (6in) apart, just covering the seeds with soil and if lots of seedlings pop up, thin them to 5cm (2in) apart eating the thinnings. Harvest by cutting entire plants, leaving a 2.5cm (1in) stubby base from which it will regrow for another cut. Water during dry spells and watch out for slugs and snails who are equally partial to these young tender leaves.
Fresh and plump, these delicious pods contain the sweetest of treats for the gardener. Once the ground warms in spring, make a shallow trench, 15cm (6in) wide and 3cm (1in) deep. Scatter pea seeds along the base of the trench so they’re around 5cm (xxin) apart and cover with soil. Mice will sometimes eat seed but covering the planting with fleece or mesh makes it more awkward for them.
If you’re on heavy soil and mice are persistent, sow into containers or old guttering under cover in a cool greenhouse and plant out sturdy seedlings. You’ll need to stake taller plants with a line of pea sticks and if pigeons become a problem, stake some mesh over the plants.
Even if your plot is tiny you can still grow little pea wigwams using three 1m (4ft) canes. Push some twiggy sticks between the canes to give plants something to cling to and sow three seeds direct around each cane. ‘Douce Provence’ is a good choice for mini wigwams (£2.79 for 270 seeds from Suttons) or if you fancy going tall try 2.4m (8ft) ‘Champion of England’ (£2.93 for 80 seeds from the Real Seed Company).
Growing potatoes is child’s play, and certain cultivars such as ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Anya’ are so delicious that it’s always worth making room for them, even if it’s just a couple of containers or large sacks.
Look out for seed potatoes at your local garden centre or order on line (don’t use something from the local grocery store), and for the fastest and easiest crops choose a ‘first early’ or ‘second early’ cultivar. Maincrops take longer and are more at risk of blight.
Place the seed potatoes somewhere cool and light to ‘chit’, that is, start the shoots into growth. You’re after tight, knobbly, green shoots, a couple of cm long by the time you plant out, not pale lanky ones. Plant out in early March if you live in a sheltered part of the country, late March or even early April if not. Any shoots venturing above ground will be blackened by frost should temperatures fall so mound soil over the young shoots (earthing up) as they grow. This also stops light reaching the developing tubers and turning them green.
Super pungent garlic has a touch of magic to it. You pop a single clove in the ground and it turns into a whole head of cloves, reeking of barbeques and sunshine – what’s not to like?
You can plant it in late autumn, early winter or even early spring depending on the cultivar, giving you plenty of chances to get them in. They do best in a well-drained and fertile soil but as long as you keep them weed free and water during prolonged dry spells they’re surprisingly forgiving.
Gently break a bulb into individual cloves and plant them 3cm (1in) below the soil surface and 15cm (6in) apart. Dig them up in June or July as the leaves start to turn from green to yellow.
As difficulty ratings go, courgettes don’t even register. These plants want to grow and as long as you wait until after the frosts to plant them outside, they’ll do just that. If you’ve been put off by the horror of boiled courgettes, choose a firm-fleshed cultivar such as ‘Romanesco’ (£2.35 for 45 seeds from Seeds of Italy) and cook on a griddle.
Apart from sunshine, warmth and a fertile soil you also need to give them space, often 90cm (3ft) between plants. Sow seeds in warmth under cover in April, two seeds to a pot and thin to one if both germinate. Pot on to ensure you have a large, established plant to go out at the end of May.
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Tomatoes are the nation’s favourite patio fruit and they’re so easy. Helen Billiald explains how to get them started
As a nation we’ve taken tomatoes to our hearts. From tomato ketchup and pasta sauces to the cherry tomatoes that grace every summer salad, we love the sweet and sharp flavour combination of this juicy fruit.
When you’re choosing a cultivar, ask yourself what you like to eat and how you intend to grow it. Are you after a beefsteak for slicing with mozzarella, fleshy plum tomatoes for a rich sauce, or perhaps you’re after juicy little cherry tomatoes to pop into your mouth straight from the plant?
How you grow your plant will depend on whether it’s a cordon or bush cultivar. Cordon (sometimes called ‘indeterminate’) tomatoes are grown as a tall main stem, removing any side shoots as it grows. These are ideal for greenhouse growing, or sheltered sites where you can set up supports.
Alternatively, grow bush (determinate) tomatoes. These are lower-growing, branching types where you don’t need to pinch out the side shoots. They’re often earlier to crop although may not crop for as long. They suit patio containers and hanging baskets where their branches will tumble over the side.
Q. Why didn’t my tomatoes ripen?
A. Tomatoes originate from South America and it can be hard to give them a long enough growing season with enough sunlight and warmth. Choose an early fruiting cultivar; bush cultivars tend to fruit earlier than cordons. Try ‘Latah’ a super early bush salad tomato (£3.27 for 20 seeds from Real Seeds www.realseeds.co.uk).
Q. Have they got tomato blight or are they just too dry?
A. Look out for brown patches on leaves and stems, ultimately spreading on to the fruit, which then swiftly rot. Outdoor plants are more prone to blight because there’s more chance of them being exposed to wind-blown spores. There are some excellent blight resistant cultivars now on the market (see panel).
Q. Why did my tomatoes split?
A. Cracked fruit is a sign of erratic watering. Outdoor fruit is prone when downpours follow dry weather, in the greenhouse it’s up to you to keep things constant.
Q. What’s blossom end rot?
A. Fruit develops black circles at their tip. This isn’t blight, it’s ‘blossom end rot’ a sign of calcium deficiency caused by too little water, most commonly seen in greenhouse plants. Set up an automatic drip irrigation system if you can’t water daily.
Q. How can I get the tastiest fruit?
A. Cultivar choice has a huge influence on taste but a second factor is how you grow your plant. Fruit from heavily watered plants seems more insipid than plants grown a little ‘harder’ where flavours appears more concentrated.
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By Helen Billiald
Chillies are the extroverts of the veg patch. They make handsome pot plants, offer brightly coloured fruit in a huge range of shapes and sizes, and of course add their famous kick to the kitchen. The headlines might be full of the latest heat-breaking cultivars with record-breaking Scoville scores,but that’s only a part of the chilli story.
What sn’t mentioned as often are the dozens of fragrant, fruity and spicy cultivars that will add depth and taste to your cooking, or the thick-fleshed types that stray more into vegetable territory than fearsome fire-bringer. So if you’ve spent your time ignoring chillies due tofear of their flames, then perhaps it’s time to reassess their qualities?
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By Helen Billiald
There’s something deeply satisfying about hedgerow foraging. The gathering of nuts or making of jams, jellies, liqueurs, syrups, fruit gins or vodkas to squirrel away in a store cupboard must appeal to our ancestral hunter-gatherer instincts, as well as our taste buds.
If you’re not surrounded by miles of native hedgerows, planting your own in the garden couldn’t be easier. November until March is bare-root hedge planting season, so now’s a great time to get new woody planting schemes into the ground.
There’s a wealth of hedgerow plants offering something for the kitchen, the trick is tailoring the plants you choose to the space you have and the upkeep you can offer them. If you wish for a typical British hedgerow mix then you do need room – lots of room – to do them justice. A foraging hedge could include hazel, wild cherry, crab apple, damson, cherry plum (sometimes called myrobalan plum), wild pear, hawthorn, blackthorn and elderberry. Allow some brambles and dog rose to scramble through and you’ve a cornucopia to pick from. Should you be keen to go the staunch native route, keep in mind plant provenance and contact nearby nurseries, you might be able to source trees that have been propagated from your local area.
Two plants, blackthorn and elder, should only be included by the bold. Blackthorn suckers like an advancing army and its spines are horrific – you can see why it makes such good livestock-proof barriers, while elder also has wandering tendencies.
For a more formal looking hedge, reduce the planting diversity. You could grow hawthorn with standard crab apples and it wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs. Even blackberry can be tamed, with plenty of large-fruiting, thornless cultivars on the market. You could go as far as a single species mix – Rosa rugosa produces hips just like the dog rose (Rosa canina) and its fruits are perfect for Vitamin C-rich cordials.
How often you prune will also have a big influence on what you can pick. Hedgerows tend to be cut back just once a year, or allowed to grow for several years before laying. If you cut too tight, too often, you’ll forfeit future harvests. You can get round this by including trees as standards, with a more tightly pruned hedge running between, try damson, crab apple or wild pear as well-spaced standards.
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Top ten plants to help make the most of the harvest
As flowers fade from the garden, now’s the time for attractive fruits and berries to take centre stage. Some are ornamental, adding sparkling colours to garden borders and arrangements, while others provide a welcome source of food for birds as the weather turns cold. Then there are those crops of fruits, nuts and berries that we can eat.
Autumn is about squirreling away this edible fruitfulness for the cold months ahead, so stock up the freezer and store cupboard and indulge in a spot of pickling and preserving. Use the glut of fruits and berries for all manner of jams, jellies, chutneys, sauces and liquors that will capture the flavours of the season. And as the ground is still warm, now’s the ideal time to get planting these suggestions for next year’s harvest.
By Helen Billiald
GROWING A TRUG FULL of summer berries and currants doesn’t require acres of space. There are varieties of soft fruit to suit every garden, whatever its size.
Now’s the time to order plants and prepare the soil or containers so you’re ready to act the second your plants arrive. Although you can pick up container-grown fruit plants throughout the year, you tend to get more choice if you wait until the plants are dormant when specialist nurseries send them out bare root. They’ll establish their root system over the winter months, ready to sprint away in the spring.
Most types of soft fruit are pretty accommodating with regard to soil type (the exception being blueberries that do best in an acid soil or ericaceous compost). What they love, however, is loads of sunshine and rich living in a soil that still retains good drainage – none of these plants likes sitting in waterlogged ground. Dig in lots of well-rotted organic matter and remove every last root of perennial weed.
Growing in pots: If you’re planning to use pots, make sure they’re heavy enough to resist toppling over in strong winds. Use a soil-based compost (such as John Innes No 3), make sure there are plenty of drainage holes and set up an irrigation system, unless you’re willing to water the pots every day through the summer. The larger the container, the sturdier it should be and the less often you’ll need to water. Use pots of 30cm (12in) or larger – 45-60cm (18in-2ft) pots should be ideal.
Soak on arrival: When your bare root plants arrive, unwrap them and soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour. Container-grown fruit should also get a thorough soak. If the ground is too wet or frozen you’ll need to pot them up temporarily or heel them in (pop them in a temporary trench in a sheltered corner).
Plant at the right depth: When it’s time to plant, try to place them at the same depth they were growing before – there’s usually an obvious soil ‘tide’ mark on the stem. Firm the soil down well, water generously and finish with a thick layer of mulch.
Prune before planting: Specialist fruit nurseries usually send out instructions for any pruning that’s required on planting. As a rule, leave blueberries alone, halve the leaders on redcurrants and gooseberries, and cut blackcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and their hybrids back hard. (To stay on top of pruning, invest in the excellent and comprehensive RHS Pruning and Training by C Brickell and D Joyce, £14.99 on Amazon).
Aftercare: The most important thing you can do for your plants in their first year is keep up the watering. Most plant deaths are due to bushes drying out before their roots are properly established. Don’t drown the poor things, but keep a weather eye out for prolonged dry spells.
Weed, then mulch plants in spring, applying a scattering of general fertiliser if you think they need a boost. Mulch to keep weeds down and moisture in.
Finally, if you want to be sure of a bountiful harvest, you’re going to have to protect your crops from berry-loving birds. Throw netting over plants early (our feathered friends take an optimistic view of when fruit is ripe) securing it firmly so that it doesn’t flap around and snare unsuspecting birds.
By Helen Billiald
EDIBLE FLOWERS ARE NOTHING NEW. Think of artichokes, stuffed courgette flowers and elderflower cordial. They can be sweet or savoury, used as flavourings, food or delicious decorative garnishes. The main limitation seems to be our own timidity. We’re perfectly at home with broccoli and cauliflower, but we don’t tend to venture much further. So why not get creative and add a little flower power to your kitchen?
Before you start plundering your borders, a couple of warnings. If you suffer from allergies or hay fever you need to be careful since eating pollen can be a trigger. Like any food you need to know what you’re dealing with and unless you’re sure about a plant’s identity, it’s best to leave it alone – some flowers are poisonous. If you use sprays in your garden make sure the flowers are free from chemicals and avoiding picking any from alongside busy roads.
You may be familiar with eating globe artichokes but have you tried courgette or daylily flowers? Both can hold their own as a vegetable. Daylily buds are delicious stir-fried, while the male courgette flowers (those without the immature courgette behind them) can be stuffed with ricotta and herbs. Dip them in a light batter and deep fry for a crispy treat.
Vinegars, dressings, oils and marinades can all benefit from a well-placed flower or petal too. The sweet scent of lavender transforms shortbread using only the tiniest of amounts; it can even be used to perfume icecream. Elderflower and gooseberry icecream was my father’s major kitchen success and since I’m far too superstitious to cut the dozens of elder trees in this garden for firewood, I’m thinking of bringing this childhood recipe back into use!
Rose petals are another great perfume provider. They’re perfect for delicious rose petal jam. Flowers that I use more regularly include chives (see the salad dressing recipe right) as well as rocket petals and coriander flowers. By putting them to good use, you might feel less irritated when plants rush to flower!
I’ve heard flowers described as lazy garnishes, and if that means electric-blue borage flower ice cubes (remove the thorny backs to each flower first) or primroses floating in a champagne jelly, I say bring it on! Why deprive yourself of such a fresh and bountiful garden resource?
Further talking-point decorations include dashing red pineapple-sage flowers (Salvia elegans) with their citrus-mint flavour. And what could be smarter than a cake topped with a drift of crystallised rose petals? Yum!