Enjoy a whiff of success, with garlic

Grow tasty garlic bulbs

Grow tasty garlic bulbs

These pungent bulbs have been used to flavour our food since Roman times. Helen Billiald explains why it’s worth making space for a row or two

There’s a whiff of ‘old magic’ to garlic. Spend a little time pounding cloves in a pestle and mortar and you’ll discover one of the best spirit-lifting activities around. Lauded for being antibacterial, antifungal, cholesterol lowering, mineral rich and mood lifting, not to mention the obvious benefits of keeping away vampires, there’s much to be said for this gutsy member of the allium family.

Native to Central Asia, garlic has worked its way around our planet, becoming an essential global ingredient. Can you imagine bruschetta or pesto without these precious cloves? Or, an Asian broth without the pairing of garlic with ginger? While dried garlic cloves are a year-round ingredient, the plants also offer early green shoots to use like spicy chives, sturdy flower stalks (scapes) for stir fries, and the very first mild ‘green’ garlic of early May.

Pop a single garlic clove into the soil this winter and come summer you’ll be digging up a whole bulb, a generous multiplying trick if ever there was one. To be sure of a good crop, give plants sunshine, fertile soil and good drainage. If you’ve a patch of ground that enjoyed an application of extra compost or well-rotted manure earlier this year, that would be perfect. Otherwise, lightly fork through some compost now. They dislike ground that’s too acidic, so if your soil is below pH 6.5 add some lime to push things in the right direction.

It might seem strange to be planting in the darkest months but garlic has a joyful way of kickstarting the next growing year with plants requiring at least a month below 10C (50F) to crop well.

The wealth of cultivars for sale can be confusing but there are several terms worth understanding. For a start, cultivars tend to be divided into autumn planting (late-September to mid-December) or spring planting (in reality from January to March), with a few that can be planted at either time. Autumn planting tends to give bigger crops, but spring planting can help those who struggle with heavier clay soil as the cloves are less likely to rot off.

The other term you’ll come across is ‘hardneck’ and ‘softneck’. As a rule, hardneck cultivars don’t store so well (typically not past winter) and have fewer but larger cloves that are more pungent and flavoursome. They also produce flower stalks around mid-May as part of their normal growth and these scapes are a real kitchen delicacy. It’s important to remove them since bulbs continue to swell once they’ve been snipped away. Once you’ve tried them sautéed in butter you’ll agree it’s hardly a problem.

Softnecks by comparison tend to store well, have plenty of cloves to a bulb and only throw up a flower spike if the plant has become stressed in some way. Softnecks are the ones to pick if you have visions of plaiting together a string of garlic at the end of summer.

Whatever cultivar you choose, make sure you buy them from a reliable source and have been bred to suit our climate; vital if you live in cooler parts of the country. For this reason don’t be tempted to plant up supermarket bulbs, which won’t necessarily be disease or virus-free either.

As garlic grows, keep it weed free and well watered. In February plants benefit from a boost with a mineral rich fertiliser, the Garlic Farm recommends using sulphate of potash and supply a specifically mixed garlic fertiliser.

After harvesting, clear away any crop debris and take care to rotate your garlic (and other alliums), allowing at least three years without a crop from this family to help keep on top of pests and diseases.

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How to plant it

1.     Gently break apart the bulb and select only large undamaged cloves. Smaller ones can be planted in a container to give garlic shoots (popular in Chinese cooking) in spring.

2.     Plant each clove so that its tip is 3cm (1in) below the soil surface and 15cm (6in) apart with the pointy end up. Use a trowel to make each hole rather than risking damaging the clove base.

3.     Replant any cloves that are disturbed by birds in the first few weeks. Keep plants weed free and water during dry spells but stop extra watering in the two weeks before harvest.

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EASY RECIPE: Roasted garlic and onion soup

Don’t be afraid of the garlic quantities in this recipe! Time spent roasting in the oven does wonderful things, encouraging it to mellow and soften, developing a sweetness you won’t find when they’re freshly sliced. With vegetable stock, this becomes a winter evening supper to be proud of.  

YOU WILL NEED: 1 tbsp olive oil • 3 large onions, halved • 3 bulbs of garlic • 1 litre vegetable stock • Sprig of thyme • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper • 225ml (7 1/2floz) single cream • Toasted bread to serve

1.     Heat the oven to 190C (170C fan, 375F). Slice the tips off the garlic bulb but leave it otherwise intact and place in a roasting tray. Halve the onions and place cut side down. Drizzle over the olive oil and shake to coat. Roast for 45 minutes until soft and golden brown.

2.     In a large saucepan squeeze the garlic out of their skins, scrape in the onion, removing their skins as you go and add the stock and thyme sprig. Simmer for 15 minutes, remove the thyme and put through a blender. Return to the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.

3.     Stir in the cream, bring back to a simmer and serve with fresh thyme leaves and chunks of toasted bread.

Enjoy tasty kale

Tasty kale ‘crisps’

Tasty kale ‘crisps’

These colourful crops make attractive foliage plants in any border – edible or ornamental. Follow our delicious kale crisps recipe for a healthy anytime snack, says Helen Billiald

Brittle shards of kale crisps laced with a tang of salt and lemon make a beautiful pre-dinner appetiser. Cook more than you think sensible as they soon disappear. Experiment with different cultivars as different leaves produce varied results. For a twist try mixing in ½ tsp dried chilli flakes or a dash of paprika.

 You will need: • 250g (8 1/2oz) kale leaves • 1 tbsp olive oil • ½ tsp sea salt • Juice of half a lemon


1.     Heat the oven to 180C (360F), 160C fan (320F).

2.     Wash the kale leaves, cut out the central stalks and tear larger leaves into halves or thirds.

3.     Dab dry in a tea towel then pour over the oil, lemon juice and salt and mix well with your hands.

4.     Spread the leaves out over one or two roasting trays and roast for ten minutes, keeping a close eye on them and turning occasionally until delightfully crisp. Serve immediately

Grow crops in pots


Turn your patio into a productive patch with salads, fruit and vegin containers. Here’s how to keep them alive

You don’t need an allotment or huge garden to enjoy delicious home-grown fruit and veg. Patio containers, window boxes on a balcony or pots lining a path to the front door all have potential to produce dozens of harvests for your household. Growing gourmet crops in containers has definite advantages. First, you can tweak the growing medium and moisture levels to cater for the exact crops you’re after, and second, simply by having plants close by means you’re more likely to give them that little bit of extra care and attention to help them flourish. 

Remember that good drainage is crucial. Small pots lose water in a flash over summer and become top-heavy with taller plants, so plump for larger containers where possible.

For annual crops, fill pots with the best multipurpose compost you can source. Most composts need supplementary feeding after six to eight weeks and vegetables are hungry plants so don’t scrimp here. For all-round healthy leafy growth, use a general-purpose feed, or switch to a high-potash feed such as tomato fertiliser for flowers and fruit.

May is a glorious time to be planting container crops since lots of vegetables can now be sown or bought as plugs. As a general rule, choose smaller, quick-to-crop plants that maximise the space available and keep one eye on succession, switching in some kales or Oriental greens once summer crops are over. 


Q Where’s the best place to grow container veg?
A Beans, tomatoes, peppers and courgettes need plenty of sun, while root crops and leafy lettuces and greens can tolerate some shade. Of course the beauty of pots is that you can easily move them into a sunnier or shadier spot.   

Q Do I need to water them daily?
A Containerised plants dry out more quickly than soil-grown ones and may need watering every day in hot weather. This avoids stress to plants, which can result in lettuces bolting and tomato crops spoiling. Drip-feed irrigation is ideal for thirsty courgettes and tomatoes.

Q How often should I feed them?
A Veg that produce flowers and fruits need to have a weekly high-potash feed, such as Tomorite, when in full growth. Keep leafy crops in good health with a seaweed-based feed each month, but don’t fertilise herbs.

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Grow easy peas - nature’s sweetest fast food

Pea ‘Champion of England’ from Dobies

Pea ‘Champion of England’ from Dobies

Peas are quick to sow and harvest, packed with flavour eaten fresh from the pod. Helen Billiald explains how to grow them

Peas are the gardener’s secret sweet treat. They’re the snack to enjoy when you’re weeding or tidying,
or in those stolen moments when you’ve crept outside at dusk for a few precious minutes of solitude. In my household, peas rarely make it as far as the kitchen, and since other family members inevitably track down the pods too it’s wise to plan a succession of pods by sowing right across the season. And that’s part of the beauty of peas; their diversity both in harvest times and type of crop.
By using staggered sowings and a mix of first early, second early and maincrop cultivars you can pick peas from May right through to early autumn, whether they’re peas to pod, flat-podded mangetout or crunchy sugar snaps. Add to this their various growth habits, from teeny 45cm (18in) plants compact enough for a window box to 3m (10ft) climbers, and you’ve got a pea for any garden situation. 
Peas prefer a sunny site and moisture-retentive but well-drained soil that was improved with organic matter the previous autumn. They don’t like extreme heat or drought, which means spring sowings are best, although a wet British summer suits them very nicely (something to console yourself with if it’s cool and wet this July).
Drainage is especially important with very early sowings since they despise cold, wet soil. Autumn sowings (to overwinter) only succeed on well-drained, sheltered sites or, better still, under cover. Smooth-seeded cultivars are hardier and better for this job than wrinkle-seeded.
Apart from ensuring plants have adequate support it’s important to keep picking and watering to keep the harvest coming. If you let any pods become mature and mealy, you’re telling your plants their work is done and the crop will be over. Unless there’s been plenty of rain it’s worth watering heavily once a week when plants are in flower to ensure the maximum crop.


1. START THEM OFF Sow outside direct in a well-prepared seedbed April to June, once the soil has warmed. Draw out a flat- bottomed drill 15cm (6in) wide and 5cm (2in) deep, allowing at least 60cm (2ft) between drills (more for tall cultivars). Or sow indoors in pots in February.


2. SCATTER THE SEED Space seeds 5cm (2in) apart along the base of the drill. Cover with soil and tamp down gently with the back of a rake. Cover with a layer of fleece to protect emerging seedlings from birds.

3. ADD PLANT SUPPORTS Once seedlings are through and growing strongly, remove fleece and erect twiggy hazel supports or pea netting (choose biodegradable jute rather than plastic). They climb well but will appreciate a supporting corset of twine loops.

Q’s about PEAS 

Pigeons love peas too

Pigeons love peas too

Q What are these little maggots inside my pea pods?
A Pea moth is a pain and no one wants to see little white caterpillars where their peas should be. Adult moths pupate in the soil and emerge in June and July to lay their eggs on flowering pea plants. If you sow early or late, so your plants aren’t flowering during this time slot, you can avoid the moths and enjoy unsullied pods. Alternatively, grow a dwarf crop and cover the whole lot with insect-proof netting. Or, choose a mangetout cultivar instead.

Q Why are plants looking white and dusty?
A Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that can affect peas. It’s mainly a risk late in the season if they’ve become stressed through a lack of water. Make sure they’re growing in a moist but well-drained soil, preferably one improved with well-rotted organic matter the previous autumn. Mulch to retain soil moisture and water deeply during dry spells. If individual plants show signs of disease, cut them out and clear away all infected foliage straight away. Look out for cultivars known for resistance to the problem, such as ‘Ambassador’.

Q What’s eating my seedlings?
A Slugs and snails can damage newly emerged seedlings, but if shoots appear snipped and broken then pigeons are to blame. Covering young seedlings with fleece works as a barrier. However, once pea sticks are in place it requires a little more engineering to loop the fleece around. It’s usually worth making the extra effort until plants are growing away strongly.

Q Why didn’t my peas germinate?
This is usually caused by sowing too early into cold wet soil. Or, they may have been eaten by mice, which have an alarming ability to sniff out new sowings. Try germinating in Rootrainers, loo roll inserts or lengths of guttering, in a mouse-free greenhouse or indoors.

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Start a new veg patch from scratch


Vegetables need a sheltered, sunny spot to flourish, so use a windbreak on exposed sites. Buy a soil-testing kit to work out the pH of your chosen area – for most vegetables this lies between 6 and 7 (slightly acidic). You may need to add more lime or iron sulphate to shift its pH towards neutral.

It’s easier to grow crops in narrow beds than open ground; you can reach plants without treading on soil and organic matter can go where it’s needed, not wasted on paths. Beds don’t have to be edged; just tread down paths initially marked out with string. You can easily step over 75cm (30in)-wide beds, but you could go up to 1.5m (5ft) and still reach the centre of the beds from adjacent paths.

Traditional soil preparation involves digging over the site and incorporating lots of well-rotted organic matter into the top 30cm (12in) as you work. If you find it hard to dig or wish to try the no-dig method, spread a layer of cardboard over weeds or turf and cover with a thick layer of homemade compost, well-rotted animal manure, leafmould, spent mushroom compost or council green waste, around 10-15cm (4-6in) deep. You can then plant and sow directly into this compost.


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Grow mushrooms the easy way

Mushrooms are funny little things, neither vegetable nor animal, but something uniquely in-between. Their ‘meaty’ texture and propensity for soaking up flavours makes them a cook’s dream. While mushroom forays are a glorious seasonal outing they’re entirely reliant on someone possessing a rock-solid knowledge of fungal classification; mistakes can be fatal.

Growing your own mushrooms from a kit is a safe and easy way to enjoy them without any aggro. Pre-spawned mushroom kits will see them germinating in just a few weeks or days; the fungal version of sowing cress. It’s best to buy kits online rather than picking them up in shops as you want the mushroom spawn to be fresh, not lingering on a shelf for too long.


Oyster mushrooms

Oyster mushrooms

Oyster mushrooms have a delicate flavour and a soft, velvety texture. They cook quickly so they’re great in stir-fries or soups, or sautéed with spring onions and garlic. They’re the easiest of mushrooms to grow so a foolproof place to start.

Oyster mushroom straw kit. Includes breathable bag of straw, tie, spawn and full instructions. £16.99 Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk

Oyster mushroom book spawn. Pour boiling water over a thick book, add the spawn and wait. £7.99 for 50g spawn Suttons 0844 326 2200; www.suttons.co.uk

Chestnut mushrooms

Chestnut mushrooms

Chestnut mushrooms are a more interesting version of the common white mushroom with a dark cap and stronger flavour. Great raw or cooked in omelettes and casseroles. 

Chestnut mushroom windowsill kit. Contains tray, lid and pre-spawned substrate. Harvest in weeks with an estimated two further picks to follow. £9.99 Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk

Ready-growing chestnut mushroom grow kit. Teeny mushrooms at the ‘pinhead stage’ are ready to grow and pick in days. £9.65 Merryhill Mushrooms 01903 743238;  www.merryhill-mushrooms.co.uk


Shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms have a meaty texture and a smoky rich flavour that chefs wax lyrical over. Use the tougher stems in stocks and the prized caps in stir-frys and pasta dishes.

Shiitake mushroom grow kit. Ready prepared kit by Merryhill Mushrooms, a major advantage since shiitake are slower to grow. £12.45 Merryhill Mushrooms 01903 743238;  www.merryhill-mushrooms.co.uk

Shiitake mushroom windowsill kit. Ready growing kit by Dobies containing tray, lid and pre-spawned substrate for quicker harvests. £9.99 Dobies 0844 967 0303; www.dobies.co.uk


EASY RECIPE: Mushroom pastries

Mushroom tart

Mushroom tart

This creamy mushroom pastry case filling is a perfect autumn treat. Make the mixture in advance – it’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of days, just warm it through before spooning into the cases.


You will need • 30g (1oz) butter • 250g (9oz) mushrooms, finely chopped • 2 shallots, finely chopped • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley • 4 tablespoons double cream (or creme fraiche) • Half teaspoon Dijon mustard • Salt and pepper • 40 mini pastry cases


1.     Melt the butter over a fairly high heat and add chopped mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Fry until tender stirring regularly, they should almost be turning slightly crisp.

2.     With the heat turned low, stir in the double cream and season to taste with parsley, mustard, salt and pepper.

3.     Spoon into warmed pastry cases.

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Grow gourmet roots

Carrot 'Jaune Obtuse de Doubs'

Carrot 'Jaune Obtuse de Doubs'

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 dont have a glamorous reputation but turnip hybridTokyo Crosshas been wooing chefs and gardeners canny enough to try it. You harvest the sweet white roots when theyre golf-ball sized. Theyre delicious raw (yes really) and great in stir-fries, salads or soups. Sow from April to September and theyll 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 arent 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, theyre particularly good roasted.
Salsify is one of those roots I return to every few years because Im keen for another hit of its delicate and appealing but rather strange flavour. Beautiful in creamy gratins its 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. Theyre sometimes called oyster plant but Ive never detected that flavour; Id 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 yellowJaune Obtuse de Doubsor the super sweet cream CreampakF1. 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 Im 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. Youll 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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Grow foolproof crops


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. 

2. Peas
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).

3. Potatoes
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.

4. Garlic
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.

5 Courgette
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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Grow a taste explosion!

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.

Tomato troubleshooter

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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Grow nature's little extroverts

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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Grow a foraging hedge

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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