February tips


Oh the relief, it’s February! The bleak mid winter is officially over and, as we head into a cold, but mercifully short month, the first glimmerings of spring seem, on a good clear day, within reach (on a cloudy day, it’s still all you can do not to hitchike to Heathrow and force yourself on a plane to Miami).

To the gardener, this means that the collection of scruffy cardboard and empty plastic food containers you’ve been hoarding Gollum-like under the stairs can finally be employed as seed-sowing receptacles. Yes, you can finally clutter all available surfaces with soil again – the joy.

This year I’m all about thrift – no more expensive and fancy online purchases of contrived-distressed pots, clocks, candles and obelisks, not to mention seed-sowing mats, and propagators with twiddly bits. This year, if I haven’t had to wash it out first, I’m not interested.

A couple of takeaway latte cups are now growing chives – particularly pleased with their integral lid that will keep the seeds nice and cosy until they germinate –  and an old Persil washing tablets container (painted with Farrow and Ball Clunch, of course, I’m not embracing junk quite that readily) is about to sprout forth with Sweet Genovese basil. Clear plastic fruit punnets make  the perfect mini propagator  for lettuce seedlings – plus it makes you feel less guilty about the grapes that flew thousands of miles in them in the first place.

The local deli has been more than keen to get rid of its plywood crates – once they’d worked out why this loon was so keen on their rubbish – and when those enormous olive oil tins on their top shelf are empty, they’re mine, so don’t even think about it. Recycling, people, I know I’m late on this one, but finally I’m catching up.

Of course, this now means that I can’t look at any object now without mentally working out its suitability for plant-growing. Kitchen colanders, bread bins, dustbins and the Ikea storage boxes stuffed with kids’ toys – perfect to make a self-watering container from surely? – have all been jealously eyed whether they still have a useful function or not.

If my garden doesn’t look like a fly-tipped layby by June I’ll consider it failure.

btw, I know that picture, above, isn’t of February but May last year, but do you really want to see a photo of a coffee cup? Didn’t think so…


Seeds to sow now on a windowsill in an old fruit container, latte cup or, ok, plant pot – you’re so 2009

  • Lettuce – great for the winter-phobe because it germinates in about 3 days. I’m growing and harvesting this inside for a quick early-spring crop.
  • Chives – to pop in the ground outside in March
  • Basil – bit early, I know, but my March-sown basil never seems to get fully into its stride so this is an experiment.
  • Tomatoes, chillis, aubergine and sweet peppers if you have a heated greenhouse to grow them on in – I don’t so these can wait until March
  • Radishes
  • Salad rocket (not wild rocket, wrong time), Mustards, Mizuna and Mibuna – sow now inside for quick spring salads
  • Oh, and you can start chitting your potatoes if you do that…

Wrap it up or start again – November in the edible garden (with Worzel Gummidge figs)


The last grapes of the season, wonderful either squished into juice or popped out of their skins and fired into the mouth of my one-year-old son – like feeding a ravenous baby bird. But who are we kidding? Autumn, and harvest time are nearly over, though if you’re growing chillis you may still have something to do…


Chilli peppers should be traffic-stoppingly red by now. Either eat them all at once, in which case, remind me never to come round to your house for dinner, or get all crafty and impressive with thread and a needle. I’m not usually one for a craft project, ever since an unfortunate incident with a wrap-around skirt in needlework in the lower fourth (‘This is the worst day of my life,’ the teacher actually said), but try this, it’s really easy and looks fantastic.

Simply cut off all your chillis then thread a needle and pierce each chilli near the top (below the green bit though).


Keep going with all the chillis until you get a lovely string of them. Hang up in the kitchen and accept admiring comments from visitors.


But however much one wants to pretend otherwise, winter is coming, as ever bringing out my siege mentality. It’s time to batten down the hatches in the garden, cover the precious and feeble with fleece, straw and bubble wrap plastic – ie make your garden look like a recently fly-tipped layby. But the alternative could be plant casualties of a very upsetting order, especially if this winter is as Arctic as the last one. As Orange Juice nearly said, ‘Wrap it up or start again.’ But come on, it’s worth it when you could be having a bumper harvest of fragrant soft figs and globe artichokes next summer, not to mention crunchy salad over the winter months.  Isn’t it?

This year I’ve gone for a rather Worzel Gummidge-style approach to protecting my two potted Brown Turkey fig trees. I’m erring on the side of caution since am fed up with seeing my figs shrivel and drop off – presumably frosted to oblivion as tiny figlets over winter.  Last summer I enjoyed a grand total of one July fig (savoured while standing next to the tree with an expression of near religious ecstasy, naturally), and two October ripened ones. So this year, I’m raising my game. Not only am I draping the trees with fleece as usual, but also protecting the growing shoots where the teeny baby figlets are (squint and you’ll see them) with bunches of straw tied nice and tight.


The tree now looks like a scarecrow with multiple straw hands, seen through an eerie white gossamer of horticultural fleece. Spooky, it is. Attractive, I can safely say, it is not. But needs must. If I don’t get a decent crop next year after all that, then I shall consider figs in a British climate as just not being very worth growing at all. So the stakes are high, my friends.

It goes without saying that citrus trees must also be protected by now. Unfortunately, my orangery is being renovated so I a forced to plebbily cover my Lemon Meyer with a fleece jacket and hope for the best for its little lemon babies. If your citrus tree is light enough to move, you might want to put it in an unheated greenhouse or, even better, a cool conservatory.

Meanwhile, I’ve been blanching endive like a proper French person. It’s pretty much my only salad crop to have survived the mega slug onslaught of London SE10, presumably because not even slugs like it. But putting pots on top of it and blocking out the holes should turn the leaves white and less palate-stripping bitter – or at least that’s the idea. I’m thinking plenty of lardons and a creamy mustardy dressing…


I’ve also been wrapping my prized globe artichoke in a tiny picket fence-like sleeve and stuffing it with straw. You may think the picket fence (ok, a hastily customised bamboo screen) a bit over the top, but how else does one stop straw blowing all over the garden at the slightest breeze?



Put out traps for slugs – I use ramekins filled with beer pushed into the ground and dotted in among the winter salad. It’s so satisfying when you find one filled with the little horrors – just throw the bodies in an out-of-the-way place and refill.

Prune blackcurrants, cutting the darker (ie old) stems off right at the base. You can also prune red and whitecurrants around now, cutting back the main stems by about half. Sideshoots coming from these main branches should be cut back to one bud.

Protect peach trees with a polythene screen to avoid getting the dreaded peach leaf curl, a disease that has afflicted my Peregrine tree for two years running. Result: no peaches. Nil. Zilch. Niente. My response to this is very mature. Rather than get all DIY with timber battens and polythene – a prospect that renders me weak with horror – I ‘m going to pull up the tree and replace it with the new ready-trained fan one I have ordered from Blackmoor nurseries. It’s called Avalon Pride, and is apparently  resistant to peach leaf curl. The proof will be in the, er, producing of peaches next year. Watch this space.

October tips – garlic, broad beans and dancing on the table

squashAh, season of mists and red squashy things you’re not quite sure what to do with in the kitchen. Actually I’ve worked out what to do with the Red Kuris now – cut them in chunks and throw them in soups or roast them – but the the yellow pie-shaped Sunburst summer squashes have defeated me. I’ve tried everything – roasting them when they’re tiny, pan-frying them in slices when they’re big, throwing them in pasta, making soup – and, no, still don’t like them. Whatever you’re doing with yours though, it’s time about now to harvest your squashes and pull up the plants which will probably be covered with powdery mildew by now so you’ll be heartily relieved to put them on the compost heap.

Tomatoes, too have had their day – pick them all, even the green ones, and bring them inside to ripen (if they don’t make chutney) and pull up the plants. Runner beans still have a bit of life in them yet and you can still harvest beetroot and carrots.

It’s also time to…

Plant garlic

It’s a doddle to grow – just pop the cloves into the ground or a pot, flat end down, so the pointy bit is just under the soil surface. Space them about 20cm (8in) apart. TryThe Garlic Farm for inspiration. ‘Solent Wight’ will keep for months – perfect for plaiting and hanging if you want to pretend you live in Provence.

It’s also time to

Sow Broad beans

These are hardy brutes that laugh in the face of the cold. Pick an autumn-sowing variety such as ‘Super Aquadulce’ and try sowing them around the base of a wigwam about 20cm apart. They get pretty tall and this way you can tie them in as they grow.

table dancing

Table dancing on a sunny October day. Loving the Bishop of Landaff and the rudbeckia things I bought to tart up the bed for a photoshoot in late summer – great for late colour. Particularly proud of the globe artichoke in the background. T particularly proud of his red shoes.

Blueberries never cease to amaze me. Here we are in early October and my little potted bush shows no sign of stopping – we’ve been eating them since July. If you haven’t got a blueberry bush, you just have to get one – this is Sunshine Blue and I’m in love with it.

There’s still time to plant chard, such as this yellow Bright Lights one. I sowed this way back in March but I have a feeling it’s going to be with us through winter which is fantastic, particularly because most of my instant winter garden seedlings from Rocket have fallen foul to slugs.

Finally I seem to have been able to grow a globe artichoke. Not to eat obviously, this is purely to gaze at admiringly and congratulate myself over. Hopefully they’ll give the bed some structure over winter too and next year will rise up in a grande dame like way.
tromboncinoThe Tromboncino squash still thinks it’s summer, clearly. I’ll let this one get to a decent size and then pull up the plant.
lemonI have a lemon! Bit small for a G and T as yet but I’ll pop the tree (Lemon Meyer and now about 10 years old and has so far produced one sliceable specimen) into its natty fleece jacket in a month or so. For now it can enjoy the autumn sunshine.
lettuceNo idea what this russety thing is – my knowledge of any plant I can’t eat is woeful – but it nestles next to a pot of lettuces and when I look out the kitchen window doing the washing up it always makes me happy. Never really ‘got’ that late colour thing before, but this year I bought a few things and am now a true convert.
Bishop of Llandaff, you’ve got to love it. I know this is supposed to be the only dahlia snobs plant but I don’t care – it’s straightforward, comes back every year with no protection but a bit of mulch on top of it – and, look, it’s got big red flowers with yellow bits in the middle. What’s not to like?

September tips


It’s my favourite month of the year, when everything seems to be ripening at once and every sunny day feels like a sneaky bonus. Summer crops are on their last and glorious hurrah, with runner beans scrambling up the walls, chillis turning scarlet and fat, purple bunches of grapes hanging down from the pergola. This is the traditional time for donning your imaginary headscarf and preserving your vast gluts of fruit and vegetables. If, like me, you can walk the length of your garden in five seconds, you’re unlikely to be reaching for the Kelner jars, but at least you’ll have lunch. And supper. Today, a sandwich with cucumber and Costiluto Fiorentino beefsteak tomato. Tonight, roast Black Krim tomato pasta sauce, can’t complain.


Great news, my lazy instant winter garden arrived from Rocket, a moment of great excitement that soon turned to apprehension when I realised quite how many plants there were.


I’ve popped them into what tiny gaps there are inbetween the marauding Sunburst squash, nasturtiums and globe artichoke plants and am letting them take their chances against the slugs. So far, there have been a worrying number of casualties, though I notice the slugs have left the mustard and endive – as, indeed, would I – preferring to lay waste to the Lollo Rossa lettuces and tatsoi. Damn them.

September is time to…

Plant (or sow if early in the month in v. sheltered ground): cabbages, broccoli, winter lettuces, tatsoi, corn salad, endive, mustards, kale, Winter purslane, land cress, chard. And keep an eye out for slugs and snails, the little sods.

Harvest: pretty much everything you can imagine, from fiery chillis to tomatoes, runner beans to grapes, blueberries to apples, courgettes to autumn raspberries. It’s not called harvest festival time for nothing.



If your tomatoes haven’t turned red yet, make sure you’ve nipped out the growing tip of the plant, taking it right down to a leaf above a truss of tomatoes that are a decent size. Any tiny tomatoes or trusses that are still just flowers should be removed. Also take off any lower yellowing leaves that could be shading the fruit. If the tomatoes are still not red by the end of the month, you might need to find a decent recipe for green tomato chutney. Or you could try putting green tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe banana. It releases ethylene which speeds up the ripening process.

My borlotti bean harvest – all 50g of it, grown up a teeny obelisk – would struggle to make bean soup for an Italian family of four, BUT how beautiful are these beans?


Once I’d stopped staring at them I reckoned I’d better eat them but had about as much idea of how to cook them as I would of landing an aeroplane on the River Hudson. Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries Cafe has a wonderful, fresh cooking style. I tried this recipe of hers I found on the web and it was gorgeous – all the more so since I got to use my own sage, garlic and tomatoes too.

August tips – neighbours, air miles and Sigourney Weaver


August is a weird month in the edible garden since all those precious crops you’ve been nurturing with the attention of a penguin standing on its egg are suddenly abandoned as we all zip off on Budgetair to eat beefsteak tomatoes grown by someone else. Go away in August and your beans, salad, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, plums and sweetcorn are peaking all alone. This can be awkward and emotional for the edible gardener. Last year I  very nearly took a carrier bag of runner beans on a flight to France – until I realised it would count as air miles.

So think of your poor swelling, ripening, sweetening crops as you sun yourself in the Med gorging on fresh gazpacho. On the other hand, don’t. Watering is what neighbours and relatives are for. They’ll get you back later by making you feed their cats. And at least they get paid in produce – my mother is currently subsisting on a pure diet of Victoria plums. There are spas in the Home Counties that would charge you a fortune for that.

Meanwhile, for two and  a half weeks I’m eating french beans and Cuor di Bue tomatoes brought round by my gardening mentor, an elderly French woman called Madame Pech whose potager is an immaculate inspiration and who, despite being in her seventies, wields a fungicide backpack spray with all the conviction of Sigourney Weaver blasting extraterrestrial nasties.


If you do happen to be at home  or have rigged up trans continental CCTV for fear of missing big happenings in the veg patch, this is what you could be doing right now in the August edible garden…

What to sow now

Coriander, spinach and salad rocket can be sown direct into the soil – this Sarah Raven Guardian piece here has some useful info. Also it’s time to start thinking about winter lettuces – those dashes of green freshness that will keep you feeling virtuous come the dark days when all around is stodgy puddings and roast dinners. A salad of lettuce, rocket, oriental leaves and chicory with blue cheese and a decadent dressing laced with honey is one of my winter pleasures. Winter Density is a good crispy cos one.  Valdor is your classic round lettuce of the old British salad with half a hard-boiled egg and salad dressing variety – and very hardy. Merveille de Quatre Saisons shrugs off the cold. Either sow direct in a sunny spot and thin to a foot apart if you have room or in modules and transplant when they reach the five leaf stage.

Winter purslane is a brilliant salad plant – succulent scallop-shaped leaves with a citrusy crunch. Sow it now for winter. Do. Other things to get in now include corn salad (lamb’s lettuce or mache if you’ve just got back from Provence and are showing off). Mixed oriental salad leaves can be sown now too as can chicory – I only sow one – Rossa di Treviso – and pak choi for virtuous stir fries.

Kale is another one to think about now. Red Russian and Black Tuscan (Nero di Toscana) can be sown direct or in modules and then transplanted when the border reveals some gaps in a few weeks. My beds are so packed with marauding squashes, french beans and courgettes right now that little kale seedlings would be overwhelmed. But come October, when the beds empty day by day, I’m always so grateful for kales, filling the gaps, growing bigger daily even when the winter weather throws all it can at them. A Black Tuscan kale, its dark crepey leaves etched with frost on a winter’s morning is a stunning sight.


Alternatively, cheat! I ordered an entire winter vegetable garden online the other day from Rocket. I’m not ashamed! It’s one thing keeping growbags and big pots going when you’re away, quite another sustaining tiny seedlings of salad, oriental leaves and kale in plug trays. It’ll arrive in September and I’ll pop all the plants straight into the soil – though on the downside this obviously means I can’t go out – even to the shops – for the entire month for fear of the postman leaving one of those cards and taking it back to the depo.

Other things to do

If you’re growing trained apple and pear trees, now’s the time to summer prune them. This shows how. If you’re growing grapes, remove leaves shading bunches to encourage them to ripen. This is my Brandt grapevine’s 3rd year and it’s finally got the memo about actually producing grapes  – I can’t quite get over how exciting this is and keep taking photographs and marvelling at them – behold, actual grapes, in an actual bunch. (Whether they actually ripen to anything more sumptuous than pips in grapeskin is another matter.)


Keep weeding. Keep watering. Keep feeding. But, most importantly. Eat, eat eat! What’s the point of all this if you don’t take the time to sit back and stuff your face with raspberries, strawberries, snappingly fresh beans, and melting fleshed plums. Even if it’s not you doing it cos you’re in the South of France. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me.

July tips

Hot, stormy barbecue season…
You’re sowing less, tying in and harvesting more, as crops get into their stride, some, such as courgettes and squashes colonising vast areas apparently overnight. Blackfly and greenfly might need to be squirted off affected plants with a good jet of the hose, while slugs and snails can still be a problem, even if the vulnerable seedling stage is, in most cases, over. I put slugs and snails in a little plastic flip-top bin and then empty them into the food waste to be taken away by the council every week or so. At least that way I know they’re not coming back!
Plants are now producing in earnest – keep picking beans, courgettes and squashes to encourage the plants to produce more. This applies to sweetpeas too, if you’ve got these in amongst your beans. Keep pinching out the sideshoots of cordon tomato plants and feed them every week or so with a high potash feed such as liquid seaweed.

What can I sow now? Keep sowing carrots, french beans, peas, beetroot, chard, spinach, lettuce, rocket and other salad crops. It’s also time to sow florence fennel, chicories and kale. Most crops can be sown direct (and for fennel and rocket this is the best option), but if it makes it easier, sow other crops in plug trays and transplant when bigger.

Top tip… everlasting lettuce You can never have too much lettuce. For a constant year-long supply, sow a mix of varieties in a module tray, then transplant them to big pots or the soil when they reach the five leaf stage. Then refill the tray straight away and sow again. This not only gives you a year-round harvest, but a lovely variety of textures, colours and tastes. Try mixing crunch cos types with frilly oakleafs, both red and green.
Watch out for… Powdery mildew Looks like your courgette leaves have been dipped in talc? This fungal disease strikes when there is a combination of humid air and dry earth. Fight it by keeping plants well ventilated (by removing some leaves or even whole plants) and the ground well watered. Some people swear by mixing milk with water and spraying that on to the leaves, but this has never worked for me… anyone had success with it?

June tips

June tips


What can I sow now?

June’s the month for sowing direct in garden soil or compost in large pots. The soil’s nice and warm and seedlings will just romp away. Get these in now and you’ll be eating them this summer…

Peas, carrots, lettuce, rocket, runner and french beans, beetroot, sweetcorn, chard, spinach, salad onions, radishes

What can I harvest now?

Potatoes, broad beans, carrots, beetroot, lettuce, rocket, radishes, peas, spinach, chard

Top tip… potatoes

New potatoes are at their best in June. I love growing them in pots since they take over my garden beds horribly and look pretty straggly and rotten after a while. I’ve tried so many different containers for growing potatoes, and have come to the conclusion that all those fancy spud tubs and deep potato planters are a waste of money. This year I’ve grown potatoes in normal terracotta pots (about 30cm diameter) and also special ’spud tubs’ – black plastic tall pots. I got more potatoes from the normal pots than the spud tubs.

The best way to harvest new potatoes is to upturn the whole pot onto a bit of plastic sheet or cardboard , keeping the plants undamaged and then pick off the potatoes that look ready, then replace the whole thing in the pot and water and feed it with a liquid seaweed feed. This way, the plant barely knows it’s been disturbed and will continue to grow the little potatoes for a later harvest. It’ll also save you scrabbling about in the compost for hours in an endless version of lucky dip in which your fingernails get so filthy you’ll be moved on from public spaces.

June recipe

The June is busting out all over garden salad

Serves 2

You will need

For the salad
10 or so new potatoes
6 golf-ball sized beetroots
A handful of radishes
2 handfuls of washed lettuce leaves
2 handfuls of podded broad beans
1 packet feta cheese

for the dressing
3 parts walnut oil
1 part white wine vinegar

Boil the potatoes and beetroots until tender. Rub the skin off the beetroot when cool. Steam the broad beans, then pop out of their leathery skins. Top and tail the radishes. While the potatoes are still warm, toss in a little walnut oil and white wine vinegar (ratio, 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil). Cut the feta cheese into cubes. Combine all the ingredients into a big bowl and toss well, pouring on more walnut salad dressing to taste.