Planning for Spring – part 1

As the days grow longer itchy fingers are starting to get ready for Spring sowing. But before you go overboard with the seed packets and sow more seed trays than your windowsills can hold, think about these points first.

1. Grow what you enjoy eating or flowers you actually like!

If your growing space or time is limited, focus on your essential plants. Sow what is important to you, whether for taste or the feel good factor you get from growing that plant. It’s often suggested that you should focus on crops which are expensive to buy in the shops if you have limited time or space. Personally speaking, I always grow new potatoes even though I can buy them very cheaply in season. The reason for this is the sheer joy and excitement of harvesting potatoes and seeing the golden potatoes emerge from the deep earth. All the children I’ve worked with get very excited when seeing that first potato appear!

Harvesting potatoes

Uncovering golden potato treasure is always a highlight of the summer

2. Sow at the right time

Although you may be tempted to sow anything that currently says March on the seed packet, you don’t need to sow everything now.  Some crops like chillis and sweet peppers do benefit from a longer growing season but most plants will cope with being sown over a range of months. Also think about the climate where you live. It’s a lot chillier in Yorkshire than in Southern England, but also warmer than Scotland and North Eastern England. The seeds you sow will need somewhere to go when they are big enough and if it’s still too cold outside by that point you may run into a few problems.

3. Look out for problems

With low light levels and changing temperatures, late winter is a tricky time for seeds to germinate and seedlings to thrive. The soil temperature needs to be warm enough for the seed to germinate. If the soil is too cold then the seed may rot, or if outside, get eaten by animals. Try covering bare areas of your veg patch or raised bed with plastic for a few weeks to help the soil warm up. One tip is to look at weeds. If new weeds are starting to grow then there’s a good chance your seeds will as well. Once the seeds have germinated, keep an eye on the weather forecast as frosts can quickly damage tender young plants. Cover with horticultural fleece during periods of frost.

Seeds sown indoors pose plenty of problems too. Low light levels can cause legginess in seedlings which are stretching towards the sun. Seedlings will grow towards the sun, so turn seed trays which are on or near windowsills regularly. If your seedlings get too leggy it may be best to start again as they won’t be healthy enough to thrive. If you are growing seedlings on windowsills make sure you put them somewhere else at night as they will get very chilly behind the curtains. Seedlings which are growing well then mysteriously collapse may have been damaged by ‘damping off’. Damping off is a fungal disease which is is more likely to happen when seeds are grown in too humid an atmosphere. Make sure your seeds have good ventilation and don’t sow them too thickly.

Remember that temperatures and weather are both very erratic at this time of year and seeds sown in April will catch up and may even be healthier plants.

What will your first seeds be this season?

Leaf mould update

Last year we made leaf mould compost and hid it in the depths of the garden. You can find out how we made leaf mould compost here. The leaves had been left to rot down and when we emptied them out of the black bag this is what we found.

Opening the leaf mould bag

Looking at the leaves for the first time since they were collected.

We took out various items that weren’t leaves that had been caught up when the leaves were collected. All we need to do now is decide what to do with it!  Some of the vegetable beds have been lacklustre this year so the leaf mould will probably end up there. There is another bag which will be left for a year to rot down further.

One year old leaf mould

After one year the leaf mould is ready to add to the vegetable beds.

If you haven’t made leaf mould compost before it’s a really easy way to improve your soil and it also tidies your garden at the same time!

Giving raspberries the chop

Juicy raspberries

Raspberries can be a really heavy cropper – if you look after them!

Last year we had a bumper crop of raspberries and turned them into jam, muffins and desserts with a lot more frozen for use later in the year.  This year, one group of raspberries performed really well with huge fruit but the other group were weedy by comparison.  We decided to remove the under performing raspberries completely.  Whilst this may sound a tad drastic these were the reasons behind the decision.

a) The yield didn’t justify the space that was taken up

When you have limited growing space every bit of land counts and if something is not performing well then you have to be ruthless!

b) The unknown age of the raspberry canes

Raspberries can crop successfully for many years. As we inherited these canes we don’t know how old they are or how well they have been pruned previously.

If we didn’t have a different group of raspberries elsewhere we may have attempted to nurture them back to health. Last year we pruned them according to the schedule for summer fruiting raspberries but they were still very overgrown this year. So after a year to prove themselves it was time for the chop.

After chopping down the canes to near-ground level the canes were put in the compost bin (waste not want not!)

Raspberries in the compost bin

Recycling the unwanted raspberries

Then the roots and suckers were dug out.

raspberry crowns in the ground

Plenty of weeds needed to come out too that had been shaded by the raspberry canes

Once the ground was raked level, a healthy layer of well-rotted manure was added to revitalise the soil.

Another plant that has seen better days is the blackcurrant bush. We’ve been keeping an eye on this for a while too as their leaves have been curling into one another. Whilst the blackcurrants themselves have been a decent size, the risk of any disease spreading to other plants means we have decided to start again with the blackcurrant as well.

Poorly blackcurrant

Distorted blackcurrant leaves

When taking over a garden, allotment or any plot of land remember to keep what you want to keep and move or replace unwanted or underperforming plants. You may want to watch and observe how the plant grows and develops before hacking everything back though!

Grow Your Own Food Box – Update 1

Well the garden nemesis has struck – slugs!

slug attacked veg box

Slugs have been attacking the veg box

The small one first spotted two fat, juicy slugs on his lettuce plants a few days ago and they had nibbled quite a lot. But today he found this…

Lettuce eaten by slugs

First lettuce almost completely eaten by slugs

Lettuce destroyed by slugs

Second lettuce completely destroyed by slugs


Pretty much irretrievable.  Luckily we have some spare lettuce plants so he can try again.

Whenever things go wrong in gardening it is an ideal opportunity to ask questions which develop scientific thinking, especially “what if…” questions. My first question was: “What could we do to stop the slugs eating the new lettuce plants?”  His first response was to cover them with netting but then he quickly said that the slugs would be able to “squidge through the holes.” Idea number two was to build a wall using bricks.  He also ruled out this idea when I reminded him that snails can climb up walls, so slugs might be able to climb too. We thought about where he chose to site his veg box (next to a small tree on the grass) and after talking about slugs and snails liking damp places he excitedly shouted out “The path is dry – we could put the box on the path!”

So the veg box will be planted up with two more lettuce plants and moved to a drier location. I’ll also remind him to check there are no slimy lettuce eaters hiding in or under the box before we move it.

On a more positive note, the strawberries are coming along quite well. There are also quite a lot of tiny seedlings in the compost.  They’re not quite big enough to work out what they are yet.


Strawberries developing

I’m hoping that now one set of lettuces have been destroyed he’ll be more vigilant about slug hunting!

The first harvest of the year

Whilst watering the greenhouse this afternoon we had a quick inspection of the vegetable beds and discovered broad beans! Although we’ve picked a couple of bunches of sweet peas and eaten a few lettuce leaves from plants that we bought a month or so ago, this was the first proper harvest of the year.

broad beans ready to harvest

Broad beans ready to be harvested

They were a bit on the small side but as there were a lot of slugs around I wasn’t sure what would be left for us if we didn’t take some today.  The Small One excitedly described them as ‘green pearls’ and I think I have to agree.  He’d remembered about the pods being fluffy inside and was looking forward to podding them to see and touch inside. Broad beans are great for children to explore.  Their seeds are a good size for little fingers to handle, they grow quite quickly and the pods, both inside and out, are tactile.

broad bean harvest may 2014

The first crop of this year’s broad beans

Inside a broad bean pod

What is inside a broad bean pod?


After podding, the beans were rinsed and simmered for around 5 minutes.  I normally double pod broad beans but these were so small and tender they didn’t need it. Once cooked, they were mixed with some crumbled feta and a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Simple but extremely delicious. Can’t wait for the rest to grow – slug patrol starts today!


Fruit and flowers

May is the month of blossoms and the promise of summer fruits.  I photographed the garden a few weeks ago and then again last week to compare the difference between the fruit crops.


Apple buds start out as a dark pink and then open up to a delicate pinky white. Once the blossom has fallen you can begin to see the developing apples.

Apple blossom

Apple blossom in full bloom

apples after flowering

Apples once the blossom has fallen


The blackcurrants are hard and green at the moment but they’ll soon begin to start changing colour.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on the blackcurrants this year to see whether they will last another year or not.  More on this in a later post.

blackcurrant flowers

Blackcurrant flowers


blackcurrant fruit

Blackcurrants have set fruit


Some of our strawberries flowered early this year and were then hit by frost.  If this happens, the centre of the strawberry flower turns black.  The flower won’t fruit so remove the flower. This means the plant can concentrate on producing flowers and fruit elsewhere. If a frost is predicted, cover any strawberry flowers with horticultural fleece.

Strawberry black eye

These strawberry flowers have been frost damaged

strawberry flower

A perfect strawberry flower…so far!



The bees are buzzing around the raspberry flowers at the moment.  Of all the fruits we grow raspberries are my favourites.  They are so versatile, produce lots of fruit and, if you grow summer and autumn fruiting raspberries, have a long season too. We’re all looking forward to the raspberry harvest and planning lots of ways to use them.

raspberry flowers

Raspberry flowers

Broad beans

Broad bean flowers are very pretty and are one of the first plants to flower so they give a splash of monochrome to the garden when everything else is still green. The bees enjoy the broad bean flowers too.  A few of the flowers have set fruit and have tiny broad bean pods waiting to grow and fill out.  Broad beans are one of the earlier plants to crop.  These ones are Aquadulce which were sown in the autumn. Whenever I see the little pods my mind immediately turns to mint and feta as well!

Broad bean flowers

A bee enjoying the broad bean flowers


What crop do you enjoy seeing develop before your eyes?


Grow your own food box

As well as helping in the garden this year, the small one has been given a box of his very own to nurture. The rules are that he has to look after the box on his own and in return he will get to eat the harvest on his own! This way he has responsibility for a little bit of the garden and any damage due to over-enthusiasm or neglect is constrained only to his box.

If you want to try this idea too, try to be as hands off as possible at the planting and sowing stage. In our box, the peas were sown far too close together but if they all germinate I can then discuss spacings and overcrowding with him. Hopefully he’ll then be able to apply his first hand knowledge to future sowings. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on his box and offering timely advice if I think he needs it.

sowing peas

Sowing peas in the food box

He planted cut-and-come-again lettuces and strawberries grown from last summer’s strawberry runners. Added to these four plants he chose his favourite veg- carrot, pea and basil seeds. The box was an old veg box that a local greengrocer was throwing away, lined with a black bag with holes poked in for drainage.

watering the food box

Watering the food box

I’ll be updating the progress of the box each month together with his reaction to the project.

Making compost

As we were in danger of not being able to fit anything else in, the time had finally come to sort out the compost bin.

full compost bin

The contents of the full compost bin

If you haven’t got a compost bin it’s definitely something to consider. Composting has two main advantages.

  • You can recycle lots of your household waste.
  • You get free compost!

Which compost bin to choose?
There are lots of different types of compost bins ranging from a ‘dalek’ type to wormeries. You can even build your own using reclaimed wood. Check your local council’s website to see if there are any special offers available to you. Leeds residents can find out about the Leeds City Council offer here.

What can go into a compost bin?

You need to make sure you have a balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials so your compost bin has the right conditions.  If your compost bin is too dry or too wet the materials won’t rot.  Greens include fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags and coffee grounds, grass cuttings and plant debris.  Don’t add cooked food, dairy products or cat and dog faeces to your compost bin.  Browns include cardboard egg boxes, cardboard tubes, egg shells and shredded paper.  Chop or tear larger items before placing in the bin as this will speed up the time it takes to rot down.

Looking after your compost bin 

Try to turn your compost occasionally.  This will let air in, mix up the greens and browns and allow you to check whether the compost is too dry or too wet.  If it looks too dry, add more greens, if it looks too wet add more browns.

Emptying your compost bin

The easiest way to empty a dalek type bin is to lift the bin off the contents and place the bin in a different part of the garden.  Then any compost that isn’t ready can be put straight back into the bin. Unfortunately there isn’t enough room in my garden for the compost bin to go in a different position. Instead I placed the still decomposing materials into bags and buckets whilst I sieved the compost.  At the end of the process all the materials which hadn’t turned into compost were placed back in the compost bin, ready for fresh materials to be added.

compost bin ready to use

Now we can start adding kitchen waste again

At the beginning it’s easy to tell what hasn’t rotted down, but as you work your way down the bin usable compost is mixed in with still rotting materials.  This is where you need to use a garden sieve to separate the two. Don’t use too small a grade on the sieve otherwise it will take a very long time!  You can always sieve again if the finished compost isn’t fine enough for what you need.

When you empty your bin you’ll also get to see the rich variety of life that lives in your compost bin.  It was really interesting to see which creatures lived in each layer of the compost.  Firstly, hundreds of woodlice were devouring the recently added materials.


Woodlice decomposing kitchen waste

The next layer down contained materials that had started to rot down and this was where the worms were busy.


Worms further down the compost bin

Finally, in the almost finished layer centipedes were scurrying around.


Centipedes didn’t like being disturbed and quickly ran away

Using your compost

You can use your compost as a mulch around plants, to top up containers, or mix with garden soil and leafmould to make your own potting compost.  Find out how to make leafmould here.

Compost does take time to make but it’s a really good way of recycling what would otherwise be thrown away. I’ve included some websites below if you want to find out more about composting. Happy composting!





Winter Review

Apart from a few cold and gloomy days, we seem to be in Spring in Leeds. Although other parts of the country were blasted with terrible winds and rain, here in Leeds we made it through the winter relatively unscathed. This year’s mild winter in Leeds has been in stark contrast to the cold and prolonged winter of early 2013. As a result of last year’s tough winter the greenhouse was packed with plants that would need a degree of protection, with hardier vegetables planted outside. We crossed our fingers that some would crop at some point in the winter.

Well, you can never rely on the weather to do what you think it will.  Winter lettuces flourished with Marvel of the Four Seasons and Winter Density providing the tastiest crops.

winter lettuce

Overwintered lettuce

Cavolo Nero (Tuscan Kale) and Leeks cropped all the way through winter with Purple Sprouting Broccoli making an appearance at the end of March. Autumn sown onions, garlic, shallots and broad beans survived with only a few losses and are now developing well.

purple sprouting broccoli

Purple Sprouting Broccoli about to make an appearance

But… the mild winter resulted in some unexpected developments.  Many salad crops such as Mizuna  and Lambs Lettuce bolted and set seed by the beginning of March. An overwintering Osteospermum started flowering and one variety of Strawberry began to flower at the start of April.

osteospermum in february

Overwintered Osteospermum trying to flower at the start of February

Bolting means the plant starts to focus on flowering and producing seed rather than leafy crops. Mizuna flower buds were regularly removed but were quickly replaced with others. Flowers and fruit which develop earlier are susceptible to late frosts so need a degree of protection until all risk of frost has passed.

One of the problems this winter was that the crops were not harvested often enough and we had too many of some plants. (Like the Mizuna!) So next winter I will try winter lettuces, Cavolo Nero and Leeks again but I’ll give the Mizuna a miss. I’ll also think very carefully about how many plants I plant out and give any extra away to other growers.

What worked for you this winter?


April Book of the Month – Grandpa’s Garden

The Book of the Month for April is “Grandpa’s Garden” written by Stella Fry and illustrated by Sheila Moxley This picture book tells the story of Grandpa’s garden from late winter to autumn and covers the whole range of fruit and vegetable growing.  Grandpa shows Billy how to look after the soil, make compost, sow seeds and explains the importance of beneficial insects. Once the crops are ready, Grandpa and Billy eat the crops then save seeds for the next season.

grandpas garden


At the end of the story there is a plan of Grandpa’s garden which is divided into 4 plots and information is given on crop rotation.  The author then describes what happens in each season and suggests jobs to do. This cleverly combines the story of Grandpa’s garden with information texts and widens the audience of the book appealing to both younger children and independent readers.

My favourite part of this book is when Billy thinks everything in the wintry garden is dead, but Grandpa explains, “with summer in his eyes” that the garden is only sleeping.  Have you got summer in your eyes?  What will you grow in your garden this year?