There’s no doubt that when it comes to grow your own, spuds have an image problem. Potatoes may be a staple of many diets but for the average vegetable gardener they are seen as space-greedy and suitable only for allotments. Why devote time and effort to something that’s cheap to buy and, frankly, a bit dull?
The answer, as with so many crops, lies in the taste. There’s nothing quite like newly dug potatoes and growing your own gives you the chance to try varieties ignored by the supermarkets. They can also be raised in containers, so even balcony gardeners needn’t miss out, while choosing one of the colourful varieties means you could be harvesting rainbow nuggets of gold.
The start of the potato growing season is one of the highlights of the year at Dundry Nurseries. The Cotswold business hosts an annual Potato Weekend that sees thousands of seed potatoes sold to customers who travel from all over the country for the event. As little as one tuber can be bought, making it the ideal way for beginners to start, or for old hands to try something new.
This year, the 19th event, there will be around 135 different varieties on offer with coloured spuds set to steal the show.
“We like to be a bit different,” says Steve Mercer, manager at the family-owned nursery. “As with everything we do, it’s a bit of fun.”
Unlike varieties such as ‘Red Duke of York’, it’s not just the skin that’s coloured on these spuds but the flesh as well. Some are Heritage varieties, others newer introductions.
‘Violetta’ and ‘Salad Blue’ are both a deep blue-purple, ‘Red Emmalie’ is a glorious pink-red, while ‘Highland Burgundy’ has almost all red flesh with just a narrow band of white under the red skin. ‘Shetland Black’ has dark blue skin and creamy flesh with a distinctive purple band.
When it comes to more mainstream varieties, ‘Charlotte’ is still the bestseller.
“It’s because everybody knows it and it always grows well. Why change a good thing?” says Steve.
There has been a trend though for growers to move over to ‘Annabelle’, which crops earlier than ‘Charlotte’ and with more uniform tubers. In the same way, ‘Mozart’, which Steve describes as “bombproof”, is gradually becoming the spud of choice among former ‘Desiree’ growers. Meanwhile, ‘Jazzy’, a popular waxy spud with great flavour, sold out on the first day at last year’s event.
“We’ve tripled the order this time,” says Steve.
Last year, around 1,800 people visited over the two days of the Potato Weekend with many more calling in during the run-up to be sure of getting a particular variety.
“Around eighty per cent still come back for the weekend to talk to fellow growers. It’s really a social gathering.”
• Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its Potato Weekend on Saturday and Sunday January 16 and 17 from 9am to 4.30pm. Tubers are 20p each; £1.75 a Kg; £4.50 3Kg. Nursery owner Chris Evans will give cookery demonstrations using coloured potatoes on the Saturday. Gloucestershire gardening groups will have stalls, there will be advice about growing potatoes, antique tools on display and a potato-themed play on the Sunday. Refreshments will be available. For more details, visit http://www.dundrynurseries.co.uk/default.asp
How to grow spuds
• Always use certified disease-free tubers.
• Tubers should be chitted to develop shoots before planting. Place, eyes uppermost, in a light, frost-free place, such as a conservatory or porch. Old egg boxes are an ideal container.
• Ground should not be freshly manured – prepare it in the autumn. Pelleted chicken manure is a popular fertiliser when planting.
• Plant around the end of March for first earlies; early to mid-April for second earlies and mid to late April for maincrop.
• First and second earlies are planted 1ft apart, 5ins deep with 2ft between rows. Main crop: 18ins apart, 5ins deep.
• As shoots start to grow, earth up by drawing earth around them to protect from frost and stop light turning the tubers green. Keep well-watered.
• Harvest first and second earlies from June, when the potatoes are egg-sized. Harvest main crop from September when the flowers go over.
• Allow potatoes to dry before storing in a dark, frost-free place in sacks. Do not store damaged tubers and check remainder regularly.
• A 35L bucket can be planted with three tubers. Keep well watered and either fill the bucket immediately or earth up as the tubers grow.
The second bloom to start the week with memories of sunnier days.
Monday. The first of the year. Holiday over. Rain forecast – again. To cheer the inevitable gloom, I am starting a weekly ‘Cheering up Mondays’ spot with a flower to lift the spirits. Here is the first.
Gardeners tend to be optimistic, always looking forward rather than back, convinced that next season will be better. At the end of the year, however, it seems fitting to cast an eye over the past, grumble at the mistakes and celebrate the triumphs.
2015 has been strange for gardeners. Spring came as a cold blast while the year has ended unseasonably warm. Some things have fared well – there’s been a bumper crop of ‘Rainbow’ beetroot and the greenhouse continued to earn its keep – but others, notably members of the squash family, sulked in the wet summer.
Parsnips were another problem crop. They are notoriously difficult to germinate, resulting in either feast or famine, and this season was very nearly famine.
I was advised many years ago by a prize-winning grower to hold off sowing for as long as possible to allow the soil to warm but with the cold start, this proved challenging. The first sowing failed and the second was patchy. I was resigned to a small harvest and started to replant the first bed with squash. No soon had they got their feet down then the sulky parsnip started to appear, presumably encouraged by the rising temperatures. Whether they will have caught up after their late start remains to be seen as I have yet to investigate what lurks underground.
In contrast, new varieties of runner beans and tomatoes were absolute winners and are sure to be repeated. Nearly every runner bean claims to be stringless but in the case of ‘Desiree’ it seems to be true. As usual, I struggled to keep up with picking and some beans were definitely on the large side but whereas that would normally mean a mouthful of inedible fibres, ‘Desiree’ lived up to its billing. Thank you, Thompson & Morgan for the trial packet.
Another recommendation came from Paolo at Franchi Seeds. What, I asked, would be a good tomato variety for making sauce, as full of flavour as a cherry type but without the fiddle of skinning tiny fruit? One suggestion was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, which produced whopping fruits, packed with flavour and as good raw as cooked; definitely one to grow again next year.
Nowhere is the changing climate more obvious than in the flower borders. My tulips shivered in the spring chill, the garden lost its sparkle under grey summer skies and now the unseasonable warmth has produced odd flowering companions. As I type, the garden is sporting scabious, roses and marigolds alongside the first of the snowdrops, winter honeysuckle and hellebores, while I fear for the already showing euphorbia bracts if we get a frost.
More negative was the nightly ravages of wildlife in the garden with a mole criss-crossing the lawn and a badger attacking what was left. Just don’t get me started on slugs and snails.
Highlights include wisteria dripping with blooms – thanks, probably, to finally hitting the January pruning deadline. Splitting clumps of the early flowering snowdrop ‘Colossus’ means it can be seen from even more windows on those stay indoors days, and an unexpected surprise has been the flowering this month of Iris unguicularis after being little more than a clump of leaves for several years.
And that’s the hope that keeps all gardeners going: next year will be better.
I’ve recently been sorting out around 12 years’ of gardening photos and came across some favourites. I decided to share them in a flower Advent calendar, which I have been posting on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s the astrantia that started it all off.
For those who don’t follow me on those platforms, or for anyone who wants another look, follow this link to see the daily posts.
Click on a picture and you can view them as a carousel.
From vibrant poinsettias to the obvious Christmas cacti, giving pot plants as a festive gift shows no signs of losing popularity. Yet for some they can be a present wrapped up in worry. Get the care of these colourful exotics wrong and you could be left with little more than limp leaves and bare stems by January.
The answer is to follow a few basic rules about temperature and watering, says Cheltenham florist Richard Brazington. He works at Bumblebeez where pot plants are a firm favourite with customers.
“Pot plants last a bit longer than cut flowers,” he explains. “Also with something like plant arrangements you get the choice of planting things out in the garden later.
Typical arrangements include ivy, a small evergreen and bulbs. They should be allowed to die back naturally and can then be planted out in the garden.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” adds Richard with a smile.
Poinsettias have long been top of the festive flower list and today they come in far more than just the traditional scarlet with a range of colours that includes burgundy, shocking pink and salmon.
Unsurprisingly, given that they come from central America, poinsettias need warmth to survive. Indeed, they are most at risk on the journey to your house when, unless they are well wrapped, they can catch a chill.
“It’s essential for them not to get cold,” says Richard. “It’s why I always think you should never buy them when they’ve been on show outside a shop.”
With this in mind, don’t leave your poinsettia out in the cold on a windowsill behind curtains at night as the drop in night-time temperature can be fatal.
Overwatering is the other peril: “They will rot and go mushy underneath.”
Water them sparingly, waiting until the compost feels dry and ensure they drain well.
If poinsettias like it hot, cyclamen are the cool customers among potted plants. They find centrally heated homes challenging and much prefer a position away from radiators or open fires.
Again, care needs to be taken with watering, which is best done from the bottom by standing the plant in a few inches of water for about 15 minutes and then allowing it to drain.
“The corms have a dimple on the top,” explains Richard. “If you water from the top and get water in that, they will rot.”
Orchids are among the most showy plants and, treated right, can be in flower for months. Phalaenopsis like plenty of light and warmth – but don’t overheat them next to a radiator. Water them freely when the compost is dry; use rainwater for the best results.
“You can throw as much water at them as you like, but let it drain well. If they sit in water, they will rot from the bottom up.”
Cymbidiums also like plenty of light but prefer a cooler position. Again, they should be watered when dry to the touch and allowed to drain.
If you’re buying them as a gift, Richard advises choosing a plant with plenty of open flowers as the shock of moving can cause them to drop buds.
Christmas cacti are also prone to losing flower buds when moved but, once into the house, are generally trouble-free. Steamy bathrooms out of direct sunlight suit them well and putting them on a saucer of moist gravel can help to increase the humidity.
To get the best results, they need regular feeding and watering from April to September and two ‘rest’ periods where the temperature is lowered – easily done by moving them to a cooler room – and watering is reduced. The first is when they finish flowering, usually late January to late March. The second is from mid-September until new flower buds have formed. Then move them back into the warm, resume regular watering and they should reward you with a fresh crop of flowers just in time for Christmas.
Unlike some of my nearest and dearest, gardening friends and family are easy when it comes to buying presents. Newcomers to the joys of growing can be given starter kits of forks, trowels and fool-proof seeds while there are unusual plants and top quality tools for seasoned campaigners. And everyone loves a book.
But what of the professionals for whom gardening is not a hobby but a way of life? I’ve been talking to the head gardeners at some of the Cotswolds’ best known plots and asking them to share their letters to Santa.
At Barnsley House, home of the late Rosemary Verey, head gardener Richard Gatenby is hoping for new tools, but not just any old fork and spade. He has his eye on some traditionally made items from Holland.
“Dutch tools do it for me,” he explains. “I’d love the DeWit planting spade. It has a beautiful curve to the shaft and not too big a blade. But I’d need boot protectors!”
Richard, who worked with Mrs Verey on the world famous garden, is also hoping for a Great Dixter Tickling Fork. Designed by another horticultural giant, the late Christopher Lloyd, and made by Sneeboer, it is ideal for working the soil in tightly planted beds.
“I like the sound of it and again it just looks perfect.”
At Batsford Arboretum, head gardener Matthew Hall is in charge of 56 acres of woodland and garden that include the National Collection of Japanese flowering cherries. The wide-ranging arboretum has around 1,300 different trees, shrubs and bamboo, and more than 2,850 labelled specimens.
Unsurprisingly, top of his Christmas list is something to make keeping a track of everything a little easier.
“If someone was to hand me a GPS system to map the arboretum and catalogue the plant collection, I would be very happy!” he says.
It’s not trees but vegetables that are on Greg Power’s mind this Christmas with a wish list that encompasses something that’s practical and beautiful.
Greg, who took over as head gardener at Sezincote earlier this year is hoping to see some forcing pots under the tree.
“I’d like some that are a modern design and some old 19th century ones,” he says. “I want them for my sea kale.”
One of the Cotswolds’ newest head gardeners is Vicky Cody, who took over as Gardener in Charge at Snowshill Manor in April. She’s hoping for an old-fashioned scythe to use in Snowshill’s orchard, a quieter alternative to a flail mower and strimmer.
“I also think it’s good to keep old techniques and practices alive,” says Vicky, “and it’s much more in the spirit of Snowshill and would be kinder to the environment to boot.
“If Poldark happened to come along with the scythe – even better!” she adds.
And after a wet autumn, she has also looking for a fleecy, lined, waterproof jacket for her spaniel, Cookie.
Meanwhile, Vicky’s former boss Glyn Jones at Hidcote Manor Garden is after beauty and creature comforts.
Top of his list are some mohair socks, such as those sold by former TV presenter Selina Scott.
“I already have one pair and they are so toasty,” explains Glyn, who is Garden and Countryside Manager at Hidcote. “Having spent many years with cold feet these are simply fantastic.”
Plants are also welcome, particularly a dark blue wisteria – “Grafted as I don’t want to wait ten-plus years to see its first flower” – and a pink clematis, such as C. x vedrariensis ‘Hidcote’, to climb through it.
“It’s a classic pink and blue combination and would screen a fence in my back garden at home.
“So, something to warm the heart and something to warm the toes!” adds Glyn.
At Colesbourne Park, home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, head gardener Chris Horsfall has his eye on a set of grading riddles for sorting seed.
“It’s loads of fun and pretty important when planting a garden,” he explains, “but seeds vary so much that one riddle simply won’t do.”
A new Silky Fox pruning saw is another request: “They’re one of the best saws, so convenient and sharp. They are as necessary as your secateurs when you’re out and about in the garden.”
Finally, he wants something to combat the cold in this garden famous for its snowdrops: “Above all, I would love a wood-burning stove for the potting shed. It’s a long winter and autumn, and spring can be challenging too. A wood-burner turns a damp shed into salvation. Yes please, Santa!”
Innovative Gloucestershire florist Hans Haverkamp is predicting a move away from the traditional when it comes to Christmas colours this year.
While the familiar red and green will still be in evidence, Twyning-based Hans believes turquoise, copper and striking black-and-white will also be on display.
“There are a few trends coming along that are going to be popular in the UK,” he says.
Top of his list for 2015 is white and gold, although he stresses this is likely to be soft gold and champagne colours rather than anything brassy.
“I’ve already seen snowy white coloured trees with gold decorations, maybe some silver,” says Hans, who last month won Best in Show at the NAFAS national competition and has previously come top at Chelsea and the World Flower Arranging Show.
Copper is also likely to be a dominant colour, particularly in baubles.
“A very big trend statement this year will be the use of copper as a real accent colour.”
Pastels in the form of pinks, mint, turquoises and blues are likely to be another popular choice as is the ‘natural look’ with cones, acorns, bark and driftwood.
“Cones are a fairly big feature with oversized cone ornaments.”
A more niche trend is black and white: “It’s for those who want to make strong statement.”
Hans, who trained as a Master Florist in Holland, is using some of these ideas in this season’s workshops, which will cover festive floral decorations including table decorations and door wreaths.
“I’m picking and mixing them a bit. I try to look at the trends and then try to work them into something that’s exciting but not scary.”
His ‘Twinned Candles’, an arrangement using chunky Scandinavian candles, will mix white, taupe, browns, cinnamon and chocolate tones and is wrapped in felt.
Door wreaths this year draw on the cone theme with natural and white-sprayed cones and twigs giving a textured finish.
His party arrangements will be in white and grey with the copper accent, while the table arrangements will feature white, natural wood, greys, champagne and natural tones.
When it comes to flowers, he is planning to use white spray roses, copper carnations, nerines and kochia.
“It’s like a little, grey Christmas tree,” he explains.
Yet, he says despite these new trends there will always be a place for the traditional.
“You will always have reds and golds because that is the traditional colour. But slowly people are looking to make more of a personal statement with what they do. They are daring to leave the golds and the reds behind.”
• Workshops, priced from £55, run from December 2 to 22 and are held in Twyning. To book and for more information, call 07818 040312 or visit www.hansflowers.co.uk