Review: The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom

I first encountered French dressing on a school trip to Paris. We were all puzzled by the idea of putting vinegar on lettuce as such things had yet to reach rural Norfolk. For us, salad was lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a dollop of salad cream. How little we knew.

My salads have been more adventurous for many years now but reading The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom, I realise I still have much to learn. Yes, fennel, rocket and even red mustard are familiar but I’ve never thought of putting kale into salad and know nothing of Chinese artichoke.

The Salad Garden, first published in 1984, has been reissued with a revised and updated text that now includes more recent additions to the salad plate, including microgreens and cucamelon, described by Larkcom as “an edible novelty”.

the salad garden
There’s a huge range of lettuce to grow Photo: Jason Ingram

It has long been labelled a ‘classic’ among gardening books and it’s easy to see why. Packed with content, it covers more than 200 ‘ingredients’ for salads, ranging from the familiar lettuce, through Oriental greens to edible wild plants and even weeds.

Each section gives not only cultivation and harvesting directions but suggestions for varieties to grow; some to cope with particular conditions, others to give a longer season of cropping.

The advice is borne of many years of growing: Larkcom started with a Suffolk allotment, moving through potagers and a market garden to her present-day County Cork home. Many of her more unusual suggestions are the result of a year she and her family spent travelling around Europe in a caravan, learning about vegetable growing and local varieties. Later she continued her research across Asia and America.

The salad garden
Nasturtium flowers are pretty and edible Photo: Jason Ingram

But there’s far more to discover than just what to grow. Her tips include practical ways of stopping cabbages rocking on windy sites, how to water lettuces, and mixing carrots with annual flowers, such as love-in-a-mist, to hide them from carrot fly.

She suggests letting landcress self-seed – “This sometimes seems the simplest way to grow it!” – advises against buying oriental veg too early in the season as it is prone to bolt, and notes that dwarf ornamental brassicas make good winter conservatory houseplants.

There are sections on compost-making, the design of kitchen gardens and the best size and shape of beds, growing in small spaces or containers and how to sow seed.

the salad garden
Cold frames can be used for winter crops Photo: Jason Ingram

The book ends with recipe and serving ideas, a directory of seed suppliers and a very useful chart to plan a year-round supply of different salad ingredients. There is even a ‘where to start’ list for novices.

As such, this book would be ideal for anyone interested in producing salads more varied, fresher and cheaper than it is possible to buy.

“Experiment . . . and grow what you like!” Larkcom urges us. Her book makes it easy to start.

The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln rrp £16.99. Buy Now (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

• For more book reviews, see here

Tomatoes – a growing addiction

If I could grow only one crop it would be tomatoes. Little else has the variety or sums up summer in just one mouthful.

It’s something I’ve done for years, even before I had a proper ‘kitchen garden’, cramming growbags around the tiny patio at my first house.

My obsession can be blamed on a friend who raised seedlings on the windowsills of his equally tiny terraced home and gave me some spares. I was hooked.

With more space, there’s been the chance to experiment. This year, I’ve got nine different varieties, some sent by seed companies for me to trial, others old favourites.

tomatoes
‘Costoluto Fiorentino’

Top of my list is ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, an ugly brute but one of the best flavoured tomatoes I know. Don’t be put off by its looks or the seemingly cotton wool-like flesh. This tomato is oozing with flavour and makes one of the best sandwiches.

‘San Marzano’ is another regular, a plum-type that’s good for cooking, while ‘Principe Borghese’, is more rounded and great for roasting. All of these I’ve bought from Franchi seeds and, as always, they are producing robust plants.

For the first time in many years, I’m not growing my usual cherry tomato, ‘Sweet Million’. Having been sent trial tomatoes and with seed left from last year (yes, I find it does keep), even I decided there was enough for one year.

tomatoes
Just some of this season’s plants

‘Heinz 1370’ from Dobies’ Rob Smith Range is one that I’m particularly interested to taste. A heritage variety, it’s the tomato that forms the basis of Heinz Tomato Sauce.

Unwins’ ‘Cherry Baby’ is another new one to me and is described as having masses of “deliciously sweet” tomatoes. Perhaps it will replace ‘Sweet Million’ on my list.

‘Montello’ from Marshalls is another with small fruit but this time they are mini plum tomatoes. So far, they’ve produced sturdy plants and I’m hoping they live up to their billing of “prolific cropping”.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, from Thompson & Morgan, was sent to me last year and wasn’t an immediate hit. For me, the dark purple-red skin added little and it didn’t have the sweetness I look for in a cherry tomato. But, I had some seed left and decided to give it another try before a final verdict.

tomatoes
‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ is already fruiting

‘Sweet Aperitif’, also from Thompson & Morgan, is a more traditional red cherry tomato. Best grown in the greenhouse, which is where I’ve put mine, it is described as having an “outstanding sweet and balanced flavour” and should produce up to 150 fruits per plant under glass.

The firm has also sent me plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’, which have just arrived and are now safely tucked up in the greenhouse. Some will stay there while the rest, once they have settled in, will go outside.

As well as trying out different varieties of tomatoes, over the years I’ve also experimented in how to grow them.

They never go into borders as I’ve found that always seems to result in blight. It also ties up space that can be used for things that really don’t like containers.

tomatoes
I use growing rings in the greenhouse

In the greenhouse, my tomatoes go into growbags. Most have plastic ‘growing rings’ that I got from the RHS Malvern show some years ago. These give a greater depth to what can be a rather shallow growing container, while the outer ring makes watering easier.

Where I haven’t got enough rings, I sink a small flowerpot into the growbag alongside the plants to make watering easier and to ensure it reaches the roots rather than spilling out over the ground.

Outside, the tomatoes are lined up along the garage wall, which faces south-west. In the past, I used growbags here but they were untidy and seemed to attract the garden’s resident slugs and snails. It also limited the number of tomatoes I could get into the space!

tomatoes
Pots sunk into growbags help watering

Some years ago, I switched to pots and, for me, it works much better. They are a bit of a mix and a few are probably a bit small but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind.

Obviously, if you are growing in containers then watering and feeding regularly is essential. Mine get a daily water – unless we’ve had heavy rain – and a weekly feed.

How the crop will do depends on what sort of summer we get. Last year, there was near disaster with fruit slow to set, probably due, I was told, to a long stretch of cold nights. There was also the worst attack of blight I’ve known for years. Everything succumbed, even in the greenhouse, and, talking to other growers, I know I wasn’t alone.

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These were picked early due to blight and ripened indoors

Yet, picking the crop green and ripening them indoors salvaged most and, although it wasn’t as plentiful as usual, we were still eating home-grown tomatoes right up until Christmas.

It’s too late now to sow seeds but there are still plants available in nurseries and garden centres. If you’ve never grown tomatoes, why not give it a go? But, be warned, they can be addictive.

Win some tomato food

Tomatoes are hungry plants and need regular feeding. I’m running a competition with six prizes of a bottle of Gro-Sure tomato food, supplied by Westland Horticulture.

Easy to use, it includes potash, magnesium and seaweed and can be used for indoor and outdoor tomatoes as well as sweet peppers, courgettes and aubergines.

For more details and to enter, see my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds – click on the links at the top of this site.

How to grow vegetables in containers

Grow your own is a big theme of BBC Gardeners’ World Live and ahead of the show I talked to Matt Biggs about how lack of space needn’t be problem.

It’s easy to assume that to grow vegetables you need space – an allotment or a back garden turned over to spuds and carrots. That’s difficult with gardens getting ever smaller and waiting lists for allotments while those living in flats may have only a balcony. The answer, believes Matt Biggs, is growing vegetables in containers.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to grow vegetables and this can be done irrespective of the amount of space you’ve got,” he says.

“Just because you have a small back garden you’re not excluded. Come on in and join the fun.”

vegetables in containers
Matt will be demonstrating how to plant up herbs and vegetables in containers

Matt, one of the regulars on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, will be exploring how to do it and what to grow in daily talks on the VegTrug Grow Your Own Stage at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

It’s important not to think you can become self-sufficient in veg, he tells me, but to choose things that are family favourites, are difficult to find in the shops, or that simply taste better when they are freshly picked.

“Grow your favourite vegetables rather than the things you think you ought to grow,” he advises.

Fast maturing or what he calls “high value” crops are better than things that are cheap to buy or that will occupy the container for months – main crop potatoes and parsnips are just two examples of crops to avoid.

Keeping a note of what you’ve grown and what worked will enable you to build up your own list of what works well in your garden.

Among his top tips are carrots, beetroot – “pick them when they are the size of golf balls” – and lettuce, particularly ‘cut-and-come-again’. Sweetcorn would be another ideal crop as it begins to lose sweetness as soon as it’s picked.

vegetables in containers
Peas and mangetout are ideal for growing in containers

Other suggestions for vegetables in containers include mangetout, peas, runner beans, endive and chard, while Matt says strawberries are ideal for hanging baskets where they are out of reach of slugs.

It also makes sense to choose mini veg varieties or those that have been bred for small spaces, such as broad bean ‘The Sutton’. Look out also for those with disease resistance.

If you can’t get mini veg seed, just pick before the crops reach full maturity and sow again.

“If you harvest when they’re small, you get better quality, they’re more tender and tasty.”

The key to success when it comes to vegetables in containers is not to sow the whole packet at once but to keep repeating every few weeks.

vegetables in containers
Chard is a colourful crop for a container

“People do forget to succession sow and to sow a little and often,” says Matt.

When it comes to containers, anything goes as long as it has good drainage and is as big as space will allow. Try recycling old wooden boxes – line them first with polythene to prevent water loss – or hunt out some of the many colourful plastic containers on sale.

“I would avoid metal because it will heat up in the sunshine and will scorch fibrous roots and dry out the compost but apart from that you can just use your imagination and make it fun.”

vegetables in containers
Try putting strawberries in a hanging basket

Matt advised filling your containers with compost designed for vegetables, or making your own by mixing organic matter, such as homemade compost, with a John Innes soil-based compost to give it more substance.

Once planted, choose a sunny spot and check plants daily for pests, diseases and water – an irrigation system saves time and water. Then, just keep harvesting and sowing.

“Don’t be frightened to do it,” he says. “The lovely thing about gardening is it’s not failure it’s gaining experience. Always be prepared to have a go, learn from what happens and enjoy it.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2017 is at the NEC Birmingham from June 15-18. There will be talks, growing advice, nursery exhibits and free entry to the neighbouring BBC Good Food Show. For more details, see the website.

Ticket giveaway

I have six pairs of tickets to BBC Gardeners’ World Live to give away, valid for any day except Saturday June 17. See my Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram feeds for more details and to enter. (Click on the links at the top of the site.)

Top choices for growing potatoes

Potatoes are a space-greedy crop so growing the right variety is important. No one wants to tie up large areas of their garden or allotment for many weeks only to find they don’t like the taste or cooking quality of their chosen spud.

But making that choice isn’t easy. There are hundreds of varieties and all sound tempting.

I’ve been taking some advice from James Mclean, shop manager at Dundry Nurseries, a Cotswold firm that has been staging a January potato weekend for 20 years, attracting growers from across the country.

potatoes
James and the team are setting out tonnes of spuds

What makes their event my favourite is the chance to experiment, as tubers are sold from a single one at 20p right up to a sack-load.

This season, they will have a staggering 18 tonnes of 130 different varieties for sale covering every potato group: early, first early, second early and maincrop.

New varieties

While many are old favourites, there are several new varieties available this year.

‘Double Fun’ is a purple skinned second early with yellow, waxy flesh. ‘Elfe’, another second early, has a creamy, buttery taste.

Among the maincrop potatoes, there’s ‘Alverstone Russet’. It replaces ‘Russet Burbank’, which Dundry can no longer source, and has white flesh, high yields and stores well. ‘Pippa’, also maincrop, is a salad variety that has been bred from the popular ‘Pink Fir Apple’. It has the same great flavour but is easy to prepare as the shape is more regular.

“The most exciting is ‘Sarpo Kifli’,” says James. “It’s a salad variety but it stores well, which is unheard of, and it has a fantastic taste.”

Add the high blight resistance common to Sarpo potatoes and the fact that it’s suitable for growing in containers, and this variety seems to be one to watch.

Growers’ favourite potatoes

But if those are the newcomers, what about the tried and tested potatoes? James says there are some that always top the poll with Dundry’s growers.

potatoes
‘Charlotte’ is the best-selling salad potato

When it comes to early potatoes, ‘Charlotte’ is definitely the queen. Reliable, high yields of fabulous tasting tubers make this the number one choice for a salad spud.

Honours are shared in the first early category. As the name suggests, ‘Swift’ is favoured for its speed of growth – it’s ready in 12 to 14 weeks – and the tubers are well flavoured and firm. It’s also a variety suitable for growing in a container.

Also popular in the first earlies is ‘Rocket’. Again, it matures quickly, can be container grown and produces a lot of mild tubers.

Among the second earlies, ‘Kestrel’ is the top choice at Dundry. It is a good all-rounder in the kitchen and has possibly the best resistance to slugs.

Finally, the maincrop potatoes are led by the well-known ‘Desiree’. Its red-skinned, waxy tubers have an excellent flavour and a high drought tolerance.

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‘Apache’ is a colourful spud

But already snapping at their heels are recently introduced potatoes that are gaining a following. Possibly the best known is ‘Jazzy’, a second early that can be boiled, steamed or roasted. It’s been on the market for just two years but is already popular at the Dundry potato weekend.

“We’ve tripled our order from last year,” says James.

And if you want something that looks different on your plate, what about ‘Apache’?. A second early, it has distinctive red and yellow skin and you can keep its colourful looks by blanching it before roasting.

While most of the potatoes are sold over the weekend – this year on January 21 and 22 – the stock is arriving daily and regulars are already in picking up their favourites. The family-run nursery, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, doesn’t do online ordering but will post out orders placed by phone. The website has a list of varieties and whether they are still in stock.

Choosing is going to be a tough decision.

Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its potato weekend on January 21 and 22 from 9-4.30pm. Details of potato varieties are available on the website: Dundry Nurseries

• Do you grow potatoes? What’s your favourite variety? 

Review: Raised Bed Revolution by Tara Nolan

As with elephant eating, so growing vegetables is much easier in bite-sized pieces. I used to have an allotment-style plot, daunting in its size and soul-destroying to weed; by the time the end was reached, the beginning was re-infested.

raised beds

Putting in raised beds has proved a winner on so many levels. With only minimal loss of space, I can get to the crops without tramping on soil and weeding stints on single raised beds produce results that are instantly more noticeable.

And I’m not alone in making the switch: many of the allotments near me have raised beds and I’ve seen them at countless gardens and several schools.

In Raised Bed Revolution, Tara Nolan attributes this change to the rise in popularity of grow your own and the need to maximise increasingly small gardens; raised beds can be fitted into courtyards and go sky-high on rooftops. You don’t even need soil to stand them on so long as they are deep enough and filled with a good growing medium.

Wine or coffee anyone?

There’s also no need to stick to the traditional wooden rectangle. Raised beds today come in all shapes and a variety of materials. Why not use stone or logs, she suggests, or something recycled such as old wine boxes or washtubs. Even old plastic boxes or drums can be used and disguised by wrapping them in coffee bean sacks.

Part inspirational, part practical, the book is full of ideas to copy and outlines several projects in more detail with well-illustrated and clearly explained DIY instructions.

In fact, it’s the pictures that make this book such a delight although page after page of perfect vegetables did have me looking at my patch in despair.

There are sections on vertical gardening – and how to make simple plant supports – ideas for making a bog garden or pond in a raised bed and tips on sowing, cultivation, plant choice and what soil to use. Surprisingly, the latter includes the use of peat, which seems at odds with the otherwise ‘green’ tone.

There are also more general tips from how to know when potatoes are ready to harvest to using upturned flower pots to keep trailing crops off the ground.

Nolan states that her aim is “not to reinvent the wheel but rather to inspire you”. I’ve certainly got plans for our old wine boxes.

Raised Bed Revolution by Tara Nolan is published by Cool Springs Press priced £20.

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