Thursday, 24 May 2012

Growing Flowers From Seed: Companion Planting

Growing vegetables affords the gardener a myriad range of beautiful sights, with plants consisting of a different shapes, sizes, textures, form and colour.  However, combine these plants with flowers and you have a quintessential English garden.

Along with vegetables, I'm also growing a range of flowers this year.  I enjoy the challenge of gardening from seed and the huge sense of achievement that it brings.  The commitment and dedication to nurture plants and flowers from seeds is great; thus so is the reward.

As well as the colour and beauty that flowers bring to the garden, they can also be fantastic for the vegetable grower!  Companion planting is an age-old technique employed by gardeners as an organic alternative to chemical pest deterrents.

I'm growing French marigolds because I like them, but also because they are the perfect companion plant for tomatoes, which I am also growing.  Tomato plants are highly susceptible to whitefly, which can damage a whole crop.  However, whitefly detest French marigolds and thus avoid them like the plague!  Not only do the marigolds keep whitefly at bay; they also make the garden look very pretty!
In addition to marigolds, I'm also growing a range of flowers from seed as a challenge, to add colour to the garden in summer and also so that my wife can have a nice supply of flowers for the house.  I am growing the following from seed:

Sweet Pea
Morning Glory
As always, progress will be documented here on the London Vegetable Garden blog, as well as over on Twitter and our Facebook page!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Book Review: 'Kitchen Garden Estate', National Trust, £15

For several years now, the grow your own movement has continued to gain substantial sway, with people seeking a return to wholesome, natural and sustainable food production, as well as a simpler way of life.

There are many relevant gardening books available to the amateur gardener, but it can often be difficult to find the right book, whether you're looking for practical advice or are simply eager to find out more about techniques and the cultural history of gardening and food production.

The National Trust has recently released a fantastic new book entitled 'Kitchen Garden Estate' by Helene Gammack, in which traditional country-house techniques for the modern gardener or smallholder are explored.  And they kindly sent me a copy to have a look at.

I'm a huge advocate of the National Trust and in typical fashion, this book is of an extremely high standard, exploring a range of gardening techniques employed by country estates prior to the industrial revolution, when of course large estates had to be self-sufficient and provide all of their own produce, from meat and game to fruit, vegetables, milk and much more besides.

Whilst the average reader (myself included) is not likely to have an orchard, vineyard, lakes and dairy cattle, the techniques used in days of old are fascinating and absorbing to read about.  As one would expect from a National Trust book, the tome is littered with beautiful pictures, historical illustrations and diagrams, ensuring that time-honoured gardening techniques are clearly explained and made relevant to the modern-day gardener.

The first few chapters really explore the history of fruit and vegetables, sharing advice, recipes and tips that have been passed down over hundreds of years and these first few chapters really do offer practical advice, from companion planting guides to salad garden layouts.

In summary, Kitchen Garden Estate is a wonderful and absorbing book, combining the perfect mix of practical advice, historical intrigue and beautiful pictures.  The book is available to purchase directly from the National Trust website for a very acceptable price of £15 and makes a wonderful addition to your garden book collection, or a perfect present.

Monday, 21 May 2012

HOW TO: Grow Peas In 2 Feet Of Space

Space: the final frontier!  For many urban gardeners, especially those living in flats with balconies, the lack of soil and space means that gardening attempts are limited to crops in pots and containers.  But this is not limiting at all.

Many vegetable plants don't require a large mass of space: some simply like a deep pot; others are quite at home in grow-bags and others can simply be grown in, well, anything!

Although I have a garden, actual soil space is very limited, so during this summer's London Vegetable Garden growing escapades, I'm planning to show you all what can be achieved in small spaces using bags, pots and various containers.

In the first of these 'space-saving' series, I'm looking at peas.  There's nothing nicer than home-grown peas, plucked fresh from the pod and eaten raw, or boiled up with some mint and served alongside new potatoes and a lamb chop.  So this week, I'm showing you how you can grow peas on a balcony or on a small patio.

Firstly, you'll need to grow your peas.  If, like me, you enjoy growing from seed, simply knock up a few newspaper plant pots (click here for my guide on how to make these) and plant your peas.  They grow quickly and within a couple of weeks, you should have some visible shoots, like so:
After about 5 weeks, your pea plants should be ready for planting out, when they look something like this:
Now, here's for the space-saving bit.  Peas like a little bit of depth for their roots, whilst the plants are climbers, meaning that they grow upwards.  In terms of space, you'll only need a couple of square feet of space and about 5 feet of height to grow your peas – which on a balcony or patio, is more than achievable. 

Remember the newspaper pots?  You can plant these straight into the soil, where the newspaper will disintegrate quickly, ensuring no root damage to the plants.  I've unwrapped one just to show you how strong the roots are – here they have grown right through the newspaper, so don't worry about planting the whole thing!
I'm planting my peas in a hessian sack, which was £6.99 from the local garden centre.  It comes with internal supports for the canes, which is a really useful feature, although you can use a deep flowerpot and tape cane supports to the side using duct tape – it will work just as well.
I've filled with a mixture of soil, multi-purpose compost and my Miracle-Gro enriched, expandable compost (see the review here) to ensure a balanced and nourished soil for the peas, since they will be growing in this same soil all summer.  The canes have been fastened at the top and provide some support for the pea plants as they grow – they'll soon latch on and make their way to the top.
So there we have it: easy peasy!  If you have a balcony, patio, or tiny outdoor area, you really can grow some peas following these instructions – it's that simple.  And due to the quick growth of pea plants, it's not too late to start growing your peas, from scratch, now!  Good luck!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

HOW TO: Teabag Box Flowerpots

When I had an allotment, one of the things that really struck me was how much recycling, re-purposing and general 'make do and mend' was going on amongst my fellow allotment growers.  All gardeners have a knack for making use of ordinary objects to help them out in the garden and down the allotment.

You may recall my blog post showing you how to make newspaper plant pots – a great way to create loads of environmentally-friendly flower pots at no cost, that can be planted directly into the ground and thus avoiding root disturbance.

However, the savvy gardener really can make use of anything.  When starting another batch of pea seeds off, I needed a container but had run out of pots and newspaper.  Undeterred, I looked in the recycling bin and found an old teabag box and set about re-purposing it.  Here's how I did it.

First, take the lid off, since this is not needed.  

Ensure that you pierce a few holes in the bottom, using an old pencil to pierce the box a few times.  This ensures some drainage.

Fill with compost, plant your seeds and Bob's your uncle!

As you can see, this makes an effective pot that is as good as any flowerpot.  Why not have a go yourself?
So, what have you thrifty lot managed to re-purpose?  I'd really love to see what odds and ends are helping you out with your vegetable growing and gardening.  Please tweet me your photos to @londonveggarden or come and post your photos on our Facebook page wall!  Thanks!

Weekend Round-Up: Planting Out

Yesterday morning, I rather hastily rattled off a blog post bemoaning the English weather (especially the Peak District weather) and the fact that my planned weekend of planting out was waylaid by damp weather.

However, in typically British style, the weather perked up and I was able to get into the garden and start planting out the very first vegetables of the London Vegetable Garden this year!  I had been especially keen to get this job done this weekend, since we are supposed to have some very warm weather this week – surely a perfect time to get vegetable plants outside and settled down into the outdoor climes.

The first job I needed to tackle ('tackle' being the operative word) was weeding the vegetable patch.  As noted in previous blog posts, I only have a space about 4' x 5' in which to plant my vegetables directly into the soil: the rest of the plants need to be creatively distributed in pots, grow-bags and containers.  Anyway, I set to work weeding, as illustrated by a before and after set:

With the ground prepared, I then proceeded to set up my cane supports for the runner beans.  Initially, I had planned to place the runner beans along the right-hand-side of the plot; but realised that this would block a lot of the sunlight to the left of the vegetable patch.  And this position does not get a great deal of sunlight as it is.

As noted in previous blog posts, I have conducted staggered seed planting this year, so the purpose of the day was to get a couple of the early vegetable plants planted out and then to see how they fare.  If all is a disaster due to weather or pests, I have a reserve army of runner bean plants ready and waiting!
I dug a good hole around each cane support and mixed in some of my Miracle-Gro enriched compost.  This compost has a lot of nutrients and plant food contained within it and considering the stony, dry nature of the soil I was planting into, I wanted to give my runner beans a bit of nourishment as I planted them out – hopefully this will help them to settle into their new surroundings.

Following this, I also planted out a few of my courgette plants.  My early courgette plants have really started growing at quite a speed this week, helped in no small part by the warm temperature of the mini greenhouse.  Their size meant that it was now time to get them into the ground and onto the next stage of their lives. 

I feel that I could have planted the courgette plants a little more spaced out, but space is a premium and the plants are still relatively small.  We'll see how they get on growing over the next few weeks.  Needless to say, if all of them flourish and they actually do need more space, then we can simply sacrifice one of the plants to accommodate that.

So there we have it – the first veritable 'plants' of this year's London Vegetable Garden project!  It's always a worrying time for the gardener: will the plants take in their new soil?  How many problems will birds and slugs cause me?  Will excessive rain or a sudden heatwave damage the plants?  Who knows.  But for now, we are out of the house and into the garden.

Onwards and upwards!

I also planted some peas this weekend, using a sack, some canes and only 2 feet of patio space.  Next week I'll be showing you all how you can grow peas on a tiny balcony or on your city patio.  Remember to bookmark the London Vegetable Garden, or get alerted to brand new articles by following me on Twitter @londonveggarden or by liking us on Facebook. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Plant Progress: Week 5

This weekly round-up is normally titled 'seedling spotlight'; however it's change to 'plant progress' is extremely telling in itself.  We're 5 weeks into this year's London Vegetable Garden project and even at this early stage, we're starting to deal with some substantial plants.  These plants were planted 5 weeks ago, however I have conducted some staggered planting this year, with a second batch of vegetable seeds being sown 12 days ago on the 7th of May.

So here's a look at what's 'growing on' in the London Vegetable Garden...

The early runner beans have really established themselves now.  They are ready for planting out into the garden and worked alongside canes, which will be done this weekend, weather permitting!
Courgettes are another plant that is really starting to flourish.  These plants grow quickly and they need planting out in the ground now, in order for their roots to spread out and seek maximum nourishment from the soil to aid their growth.  You can plant these in pots too, providing you give them a hefty size and some really enriched soil.
There's nothing nicer than the taste of freshly shelled peas, which is why I'm so looking forward to these little chaps!  Due to space restrictions in the garden, I'm planning to plant these in a hessian sack (available from all good garden stores) with cane support slots built in.  I have also planted peas in my second batch of vegetable plants too, so that I can stagger the crop throughout the summer, shown below.
My tomatoes are also coming along nicely.  Some thinning out is required and then in a few weeks, these plants will be a bit bigger and ready for direct planting into a grow bag.
Radishes are very quick and easy to grow and provide a fantastic, crunchy kick to summer salads.  I planted some radish seeds 12 days ago, making use of an old wire frame for hanging flower boxes from balconies.  I lined it with plastic bags (with drainage holes) and then newspaper, before filling with compost.  Very makeshift, but it doesn't matter - plants don't mind where they grow!
This is the first year I've attempted French beans and they seem to be slower than other vegetable plants, yet coming along fine.  Below you can see a '5-weeker' and a '2-weeker', representing the plants I have grown at different times.
Here's a shot of a couple of the 'outside' (mini greenhouse) plants ready for planting out:
My wife is a very understanding women and has very kindly allowed me to take over a small part of her work studio in the top of the house and turn it into a mini greenhouse.  The skylight in the roof provides plenty of light and a great deal of warmth, which the new seedlings absolutely love:
Once again, I passionately believe that as vegetable gardeners, we learn from each other.  This blog chronicles my attempts at growing vegetables, but I'm just as interested to hear from all of you.  Please feel free to share your own gardening stories by leaving a comment on the blog, on our community-driven Facebook page or even on Twitter.

Planting Out: That Was The Plan...

Good morning dear readers and welcome to a rather damp, windy and dull London Vegetable Garden.  Today had been set aside for that seminal event in a gardener's yearly cycle – planting out!  For many of us, this occasion feels very much like sending children off to university: they're big enough to hold their own and they have to make their own way in life, but we're still worried!

Anyway, I had planned to plant out runner beans, courgettes and peas today, since those respective vegetable seedlings are now veritable plants and need more space:
However, I awoke to the following weather:
This also means that the small patch of soil I had set aside for my vegetable patch (in need of significant weeding) is damp, wet and quite frankly, very unappealing:
As I sit and write these thoughts, coffee in hand, the time is 8:51 in the morning.  So we have a lot of time left in the day (and indeed the weekend) for the sun to come out, dry the garden up a bit and for me to get weeding!

Incidentally, I am planning an upcoming blog post on planning your vegetable gardening.  Despite having a lovely little garden in which to potter, the actual 'soil space' I have to grow vegetables directly into the ground is only approximately 5' by 4'.  So, I have made a drawing plan of the garden and am going to show clever ways around lack of soil space – there should be some great tips for all you urban gardeners out there.  Watch this space!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Vegetable Gardening in Bad Spring Weather

Walking to work this morning, I genuinely considered donning some gloves.  There was a veritable chill in the air, the North Face winter jacket was zipped up to my eyeballs and the wind howled around me as I paced Manchester's busy streets.

This is a post about that age old rogue, the BRITISH WEATHER.

There's no doubt that this spring the weather has been unseasonably bad – showers, cold temperature: we even had hail yesterday morning.  But while I can seek refuge in sensible clothing and a (thankfully) overheated office, what about the London Vegetable Garden plants?

I'm currently growing several vegetable seedlings, as well as staggering the growing of further seeds.  Despite living in a roomy cottage, space remains at a premium, so while some plants have been enjoying a skylight in my wife's attic studio, I have been hardening others off outside during the day before moving them into the outside mini greenhouse.

Despite this outdoor protection, temperatures have been regularly reaching zero recently, which makes me glad that I haven't planted anything out just yet.  In the spirit of this blog, I decided to compare my indoors and outdoors plants to see whether being outdoors really has affected the young vegetable plants in any way.

I have two different comparison pictures for you here – some tomatoes and some courgettes.  The plant on the left is the outside plant, whilst the plant on the right is one that has been kept inside at all times – take a look:

As you can see, the plants on the right (indoors) are faring better than the outdoors plants.  The outdoors plants are by no means suffering from the adverse weather; yet they are equally taking a bit longer to grow than their indoor counterparts.

So what does this mean for growing vegetables outdoors, be it in pots on the balcony, in grow bags on the patio, or indeed, out in the vegetable garden?  Well, from my amateur observations, it appears that this cold weather IS affecting plant growth – but not to the extent that it will actively damage the plants – especially if they have been hardened off.

My advice to you with this weather is as follows:

* Harden off plants by placing them outside during the day and bringing them in during the night. This gives them a chance to acclimatise to their new outdoor climate while ensuring that the young seedlings and plants aren't killed off by a sudden frost before they are hardy enough to hold their own.

* Keep warmth-loving plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes inside on a warm windowsill until they are really established young plants.  This ensures that they have built up some sturdy strength for when you do plant them.

* Finally, don't panic!  If the cold weather has meant your vegetable plants are growing slowly; fear not!  We're all in the same boat and it simply means we'll have our vegetable crops a few weeks later than we would have.  And who knows – we may have a long summer to keep vegetable plants cropping well into September!

I'd really like to hear what YOU lot, my faithful readers, are experiencing with the weather.  What are YOUR seedlings and plants doing?  Do you have any tips to share with the London Vegetable Garden community?  Please feel free to add your comments below, tweet me @londonveggarden or share your tips over on Facebook.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Product Review: Miracle Gro Expand n Gro

As someone who started out as an urban gardener planting vegetables on my balcony in Hackney, I know full well that space is a premium.  In many instances, not only does the avid urban gardener have to plant their vegetables, flowers and plants in a tiny space: they also have to store their equipment there too.

For the urban gardener, compost is a particularly bulky essential; however due to the lack of natural spoil around on a high-rise balcony, very much a necessity!  Even if you own a garden, compost is a staple part of vegetable gardening, as the enriched soil aids the germination of seeds and growth of young seedlings, plants and flowers.

My friends at Miracle Gro kindly sent me a bag of their Expand 'n Gro concentrated enriched compost to use on the London Vegetable Garden and asked if I could review it for my readers, which I was more than happy to do.

The premise of this product is that it is a compact, easy to carry / store bag of compost that expands to three times its size.  Interested to see how this would work, I ventured into the garden this bank holiday and decided to give it a go!

When you open the bag, the compost is very dusty and a pale brown – it almost has a powder-like appearance and consistency and when I saw it, I wondered how on earth this would turn into compost!
The instructions say to mix in equal parts water and stir thoroughly, which I proceeded to do.  The compost takes in a lot of water (and certainly gives your arms a good workout!) but sure enough, I started to see enriched compost appear before my eyes – and it really did expand!
 I filled up my bucket less than 25% full of the dry compost product and after mixing in the water, had a bucket of compost that was a good 70% full.  It was easy to handle and supposedly feeds plants for up to an impressive six months, which is especially important to those gardening in small urban areas, since small pots often provide a vegetable plants home for its whole life. Here you can see a comparison of the compost before and after adding water:

I potted loads of seedlings using Miracle Gro's Expand 'n Gro enriched compost and made up a couple of batches for use around the garden yesterday.  However, I still have a bag full of the 'raw' compost product ready for use another day.  Its tidy zip-lock top and its compact size mean that I can store the compost bag away conveniently ready for use as and when I need it later on in the spring.

I'd highly recommend this product for urban gardeners looking for a clean, compact compost bag, but also for more experienced gardeners who want a great product in a convenient size.  This is a really great product and I'd like to thank the guys at Miracle Gro for sending me a bag to sample on the London Vegetable Garden.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Seedling Spotlight: Week 3

Hello again dear reader, and thank you for coming back to read more about my organic odyssey here on the London Vegetable Garden blog!

It has now been three weeks and a couple of days since I planted my vegetable seeds and the progress since then has not only been pleasing, but thoroughly enjoyable!  The picture below shows a selection (not all!) of my current crop of vegetable seedlings:

As you can see, different vegetable plants are at different stages of their growth and development, but all were planted at the same time three weeks ago.  So here's a quick progress report.  Just to note, these have been kept inside under a skylight window, where they have enjoyed the warmth of the sun (the few days we've had it)!


I planted my peas in my home-made newspaper plant pots, which are ridiculously easy to make, cost nothing and can be planted directly into the coil or compost, decomposing to ensure no root disturbance – read how to make your own newspaper plant pots right here.  Peas are climbers and so when these are big enough, I will be transplanting these into a sack for the patio and placing canes for them to climb up.  At the moment, they seem to be doing perfectly well in their pots!


I simply love growing courgettes.  There are loads of great recipes, they are high-yielding vegetables and they are really satisfying plants, with huge sprawling leaves and clumps of wonderful sleek and shiny green fruit.  These plants have grown phenomenally over the last week and I will need to separate these plants into their own pots soon.  Depending on the weather, I may just plant them into the vegetable patch directly.  Watch this space...


I love everything about growing tomatoes – the range of varieties, the colours, the sweet taste of a tomato plucked fresh from the plant – and nothing can beat the warm smell of tomato plants in season; I love it!  I have a couple of tomato varieties growing: a large, suculent beef variety, as well as the colourful 'Tigrella' stripey variety that I grew on my allotment in 2010.  We can see here a couple of dominant plants, which I will look to transplant soon, thus giving the smaller plants more room and chance to grow themselves.


Like tomatoes, cucumbers are a warmth-loving plant.  As you can see, I have four seedlings here, but they have not progressed from this size much over the past week.  From previous experience, I find cucumbers slow starters that suddenly thrive when there is warm weather and lots of space.  I will keep you updated!

Runner Bean

Runner beans are simply a classic of vegetable gardening.  The thing I love about runner beans is how hardy they are.  Once they're in the soil and established up against some canes, they thrive and provide so many vegetables throughout the summer – wonderful.  Interestingly, many people find runner beans bland and boring – but when I crop my runner beans, I'm taking on a small quest to find out some fantastic runner bean recipes.  Keep your eyes on the blog!

French Bean

This is my first year growing French beans, so this is all a learning experience for me!  People often claim that vegetable gardening is never as pretty as flower gardening, but I disagree.  If you look at the wonderful forms and shapes of this seedling, it's easy to appreciate the diverse range of vegetable plants that hold interest for the gardener as they grow and change all summer long.

So, there we have it dear readers – a run down on what's happening with my vegetable seedlings at the moment.  I have some gardening jobs to do today, (since it's a bank holiday and it is not raining!) which involves preparing and weeding my vegetable patch, as well as looking at the flowers I have planted from seed.  As always, I will share my progress with you, dear reader, right here on the London Vegetable Garden blog.

Vegetable gardening is a passion and I believe that the best way to learn is through having a go, as well as sharing your experiences with other people.  I have learned so much from readers of the London Vegetable Garden and love hearing all your advice and tips!  The London Vegetable Garden community is what makes this blog tick – feel free to add your comments to this post, chat with me on Twitter @londonveggarden or come and join us on Facebook, where I'd love you to upload your own vegetable pictures, share your advice and chat with 400 other avid vegetable gardening fans.  Callum :-)


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