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;

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;

 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;

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;


 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;

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;


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;
Hamburg parsley £1.49 for 1000 seeds DT Browns 0333 003 0869;
Salsify ‘Mammoth’ £1.49 for 120 seeds Unwins 0844 573 8400;
Carrot ‘Night Bird’ £3.49 for 200 seeds Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200;
Carrot ‘Jaune Obtuse de Doubs’ £2.22 for 400 seeds Real Seeds 01239 821107;
Carrot ‘Creampak’ F1 £2.49 for 400 seeds Dobies 0844 967 0303;
Kohl rabi ‘Azure Star’ £1.99 for 100 seeds Marshalls Seeds; 0844 557 6700
Horseradish £9.99 for 5 thongs Marshalls Seeds 0844 557 6700;
Purple Skinned yacon £9.99 for 6 super plugs Suttons Seeds 0844 326 2200;

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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

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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