Herb gardens are becoming increasingly popular as gardeners discover how easy they are to grow and maintain. You don’t even need a large piece of land to grow your own herbs in your garden as they will happily thrive in beds, containers, windowsills and even hanging baskets.
When growing an herb garden it is worth thinking about which herbs you are going to use, annual, perennial or biennial. Annual herbs such as basil, coriander, dill and chervil are fast growing and may need to be sown at intervals throughout spring and summer to ensure you have a continuous fresh supply.
How to grow Basil
Basil seed can be sown from February to June, or for indoor cultivation sown throughout the year out of season. Basil requires sustained warmth so it is best kept on a sunny windowsill, in a propagator at a temperature of 15-25C (59-77F) or seal the container inside a polythene bag until after germination, which takes 14-21 days. When they are large enough to handle, transplant seedlings into 7.5cm (3in) pots and grow basil plants on in cooler conditions.
Perennial plants such as mint, thyme, sage and chive are slower growing than annual herbs and require more of a permanent location.
How to grow Mint
Mint is an easy to grow perennial herb, requiring minimal attention and returning year after year. Sow mint seeds indoors or under glass from winter to early summer. Place the seed tray in a propagator at a temperature of 21-24C (70-75F) and when seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3″) pots and grow on in cooler conditions. Once all risk of frost has passed gradually acclimatise before placing outside.
Growing herbs in containers
Growing herbs in containers is the perfect option for those who are limited on space. They will be most convenient placed on the patio by your back door, where they are within easy reach when cooking. For larger herbs such as rosemary, make sure you use a larger pot so they are less likely to dry out. The best compost to grow herbs in is loam-based compost such as John Innes and feed your pot-grown herbs regularly with a balanced fertiliser throughout the growing season.
Top tips for growing herbs
1. Trimming herbs in the spring will encourage a flush of new healthy leaves.
2. Dead-head your herbs as the flowers start to fade to channel their energy into leaf growth.
3. In the autumn it’s best to leave any dead foliage on the plant to help protect it throughout winter.
4. Re-pot after a few years if your herb plants start to look weak and dry out quickly.
5. When harvesting herbs, remove foliage from the outside of the plant, allowing new leaves to develop in the centre.
Which vegetables will store and how long will they keep? This is an annual dilemma faced by many gardeners. Often the need for storage is caused by gardeners being too generous in their sowings and planting and creating their own ‘gluts’ and ‘surpluses’. Why plant 200 onion sets if you only use a single bulb per week?
Colin Randel, Thompson & Morgan’s vegetable new product manager, advises how best to store vegetables.
Sowing little and often reduces the wastage and ‘glut’ of the most popular subjects – lettuce, spinach, radish, spring onions, beets. Some of these, particularly the leafy vegetables, are unsuitable for storing anyway, as they quickly go limp, lose their freshness and eye appeal.
The most important thing to remember is ‘fresh is best’, that is why you are growing your own in the first place – for their taste, freshness, quality and nutritional values.
Freeze surpluses of shelling peas and sweetcorn, as they quickly lose their freshness and taste once picked. Frozen peas are one of the few vegetables that are worth buying in the supermarket as they are harvested and frozen very quickly, so maintaining their taste and nutrition. With broad beans, the green seeded varieties are less prone to discolouring in the freezer. French and runner bean varieties freeze exceptionally well.
Winter cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, savoy and winter cabbage are best left where they are growing, although need to be netted against pigeons. They can be dug up, leaving the soil attached to the roots and hung upside down by tying with string suspended from a beam in your shed. They will store for a good couple of months.
Lift the bulbs on a dry, sunny but windy day and leave them on the soil surface to ‘set’ skins. Do not rub these off. Carefully remove any soil from the roots, and store sound bulbs in slatted trays, used tights, polypropylene onion nets or tied in ropes and hung in the shed.
Maincrop beet, carrots, parsnip, swede, turnip,
These can be left in the soil, although soil pests and rodents may take advantage, and prolonged severely cold soil temperatures can affect the root texture and reduce quality and flavour. We suggest lifting some of your roots, twisting off the leaves and storing in boxes in layers of barely damp multipurpose compost, sieved soil or sand. Keep cool but frost free. Place a blanket over the boxes to keep them dark. Roots in boxes should not touch each other to avoid rots spreading and to allow easier air movement and moisture between the roots.
Leeks and trench celery
These really are best left where they are and lifted as required. The soil can be earthed further up the stems to protect them during the harshest weather.
Sound, dry, fully ‘set’ skin tubers are best stored in hessian sacks or thick paper bags and covered with a blanket to block out any light. Potatoes must be stored in cool but frost free conditions in the dark and will store for many months.
- Store only blemish free, sound, good quality produce
- Check stored produce regularly and remove any showing rotting or symptoms of disease
- Never store in polythene as sweating will quickly encourage rotting
- Sheds/garages should be cool but frost free, although using blankets for insulation and darkness may suffice
- Ideally some air circulation is beneficial for storing most crops.
How to successfully grow your TomTato® plants
We’ve had an amazing amount of interest in our TomTato® plants and news of the new innovation has spread throughout the world!
TomTato® is available to buy from the Thompson & Morgan website, but only to customers in the UK and only as plants. To help you get the best results from your TomTato® plants, we’ve put together a few FAQs with some top advice from our horticultural experts. We recommend bookmarking this page so that you can find it easily when your plants have been delivered.
- Are they resistant to blight?
TomTato® plants have good tolerance to blight. In the last few years of trials, none of the plants in our nursery were affected by blight.
- How do I dig up the potatoes without destroying the tomato plant?
The tomatoes will have finished their harvest period by the time the potatoes are ready to lift. This begins in August and goes through to late September.
- Are the potatoes a maincrop or a late variety?
The potatoes in TomTato® are a late variety. We chose this variety specifically so that the tomatoes are ready to harvest first, allowing you to harvest the two crops independently of each other.
- What type of plant feed should I use?
We recommend using Chempak® Soluble Tomato Food.
- Which compost is best?
Any general multipurpose type will be fine for growing TomTato®.
- How deep should I plant them?
Plant them deep enough to cover the graft point on the plant stem. As the potatoes begin to form, top up the container with soil or earth up the plants if you’re growing them in open ground to stop the potatoes being exposed to sunlight and turning green.
- Is the tomato a bush or cordon variety?
This particular tomato is a cordon variety that grows very quickly. You’ll need to tie the shoots to their support on a regular basis. Removing side shoots each week will also help to keep the plant healthy.
- How many potatoes will each plant grow?
You’ll get approximately 15-20 potatoes from each plant, which is about 2kg.
- What about watering? Tomatoes need a lot, but potatoes don’t.
As tomatoes are very thirsty during the main season (July and August) this will not be a problem – the main thing is not to overwater in the early stages before the tomatoes set fruit. Potatoes usually only suffer if they are developing in the bottom of a damp planter. With the TomTato® plants the potatoes set nearer to the middle and top layer of compost, from where the water will naturally drain.
There is really nothing like the taste of home grown peas.
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Grow your own – it’s not too late!
Sow petunias under glass now
Spring may be late this year, but there is still plenty of time to grow your own. In fact, waiting and sowing later when the soil and weather conditions are better means that your seeds will germinate more successfully than in cold wet soil.
With many gardeners wondering how they’re going to get the best from their gardens with such a late start to the season, we asked Sue Sanderson for her expert advice. Here’s what she said:
If the soil is warm enough and the weather conditions are favourable, you can sow hardy annuals direct outside from April, right through to the 1st week of June. If you’re really desperate to get germination underway, you could sow seeds into cell trays under cover and plant them out once the conditions outside improve. There is plenty of time, so don’t panic!
Petunias, ipomoea, nicotiana, dahlia, ageratum, lobelia and sunflowers can be sown up to mid April under glass.
Sow tomato seeds now
Marigolds, zinnias, cosmos and tagetes are the last half-hardy annuals you would sow – these can be sown under glass from April through to early May.
Sow tomatoes and aubergines up to the 3rd week of April.
It’s getting a little late to sow peppers – you’ve only really got until the end of the 2nd week of April to get them going.
Summer brassicas should be sown by now for early harvests, but late summer early autumn harvesting varieties can be sown up to early May.
Wait until the soil has warmed up to sow other vegetable seeds – you’re more likely to get a better crop.
Plant potatoes until mid May
Potatoes, especially maincrops, can be planted up until mid May.
You can give your soil a helping hand in warming with cloches and polytunnels. These will also protect your crops while they’re growing.
So don’t despair, you’ve still got time to create a fabulous display of flowers and grow a decent crop of vegetables to see you through the year.
Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) aka Peruvian ground apple, Bolivian sunroot
Yacon – makes sugar-free sweetener!
Sweet-tasting tuber makes ‘no-sugar’ syrup suitable for diabetics
Here’s an interesting tuber with the texture of water chestnuts and a sweet taste of pear with a hint of watermelon! Yacón is deliciously juicy, especially when freshly lifted and eaten raw – the word ‘yacón’ apparently means ‘water root’ in the Inca language and this turns out to be a very apt description. An exciting feature of this tuber which looks quite like a sweet potato, is that the liquid content from the tubers can be extracted using a juicer (or food processor – see Culinary Uses) and made into a super sweet syrup which can be used as a substitute for sugar, much like honey or maple syrup. And the best thing about the syrup, is that it’s virtually calorie-free! Yacón contains an indigestible sugar called inulin which means that yacón – the tubers AND the sweetening syrup – are suitable for diabetics.
How to make ‘sugar-free’ yacón syrup
Wash tubers thoroughly and whizz them in a food processor to make a pulp. Then boil the pulp in a large pan, using a cooking thermometer to keep the temperature at approximately 103°C, to form a dark brown syrup. Just four plants should provide the 12 kgs of tubers required to produce 1 litre of syrup.
Culinary uses of Yacón
Fresh tubers can just be washed – no need to peel them if they are just out of the ground – and sliced to eat raw as a snack, in salads or added to stir fries. It should be noted that the flesh will tend to discolour – like apples and potatoes – so sprinkling with a little lemon juice (or apple juice) will slow this process down. When using yacón in salads, it’s best to toss it in lemon juice (or in lemon juice diluted with water) and add it just before dressing and serving.
Don’t throw away the foliage from your yacón! A few fresh leaves from each plant can be cut during the summer and autumn, tied together and left to dry naturally in the kitchen or airing cupboard. Once dry, crumble them into boiling water to make a delicious ‘green tea’. Crumbled leaves will keep fresh for many months in an airtight container.
Yacón will absorb sauces, dressings and condiments so it can be used as a delicious and different ingredient in a variety of sweet and savoury salads. Try it with grated carrots and a grainy mustard vinaigrette as a colourful salad. Or chopped and added to a colourful fruit salad of pineapple, mango and pomegranate. Yacón can also be roasted along with other root vegetables, tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with sprigs of rosemary or simply steamed. The possibilities are endless.
Yacón is easy to grow in most soils, although deeper soils will provide a heavier yield of larger tubers. Plants will greatly appreciate the addition of compost and/or well-rotted manure each autumn. The height of the plants makes them ideal companion plants for spinach, French beans, courgettes and radish plants to utilise space in between plants and to provide dappled shade.
Grow yacón from ‘buds’ (also known as ‘caudices’) which should be potted up individually from February to early April in moist compost with the growing point upwards. Keep at about 18°C until shoots appear. Plant them out when the risk of frost has passed and once plants are approx. 7-10cm tall to ensure they establish more reliably. Position the plants in a sheltered, sunny spot, at the same time as you would plant out your courgettes. Plants are tall – up to 6ft (180cm) – so allow approx. 30in x 30in (75cm x 75cm) for optimum yields. Small flowers are produced in the summer and tubers are formed in the autumn. Frosts will tend to tinge the foliage, but a heavy frost will usually wither or blacken the leaves and it is then time to lift the tubers, usually during November.
Yacon – just harvested
Using a long fork, carefully lift the tubers as they tend to bury quite deeply in the soil, and will form a clump similar to a dahlia. Carefully break off the tubers. Any damaged tubers should be used promptly or made into syrup as they will rot in storage. Only undamaged tubers will store.
An average plant will yield 3.5-4 kgs of tubers.
Tubers store extremely well in paper or hessian sacks in a cool dry place in the shed or garage, but they need to be kept frost free. They often sweeten over time. Keep a couple of yacón tubers in the fruit bowl where they will ‘warm up’ and sweeten further before use.
Stored tubers will form a thicker skin, which turns a darker brown colour and will need peeling, as it becomes more bitter over time.
Yacon buds are available on the Thompson & Morgan website. Click here for more details.
Recipe suggestions from Mark Diacono at guardian.co.uk