Review: Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock

There’s a commonly held view that growing veg is possible only if you have a large garden or access to an allotment. Tiny plots, courtyards or the balconies and window boxes of generation rent make grow your own impossible. Or do they? In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Caleb Warnock sets out to prove otherwise.

tiny garden huge harvestThe American self-sufficiency expert believes it’s possible to grow in the tiniest of spaces, in fact he says a small space can be beneficial: “For busy families, a tiny garden creates a manageable and sustainable workload.”

And he tells us that in a garden of just 8ft by 8ft, he managed to harvest 207lbs of veg.

The key is choosing the right things to grow – and the best varieties – and making full use of the space available.

In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Warnock, who is based in the Rocky Mountains, sets out how to achieve this and passes on the tips and tricks for using space efficiently that he’s learned over the years.

tiny garden huge harvest
The book has charts and lists to help

In a small garden, there’s no room for passengers so the first rule is to grow only what you like to eat: “This may seem obvious at first, but surprisingly, many people fail to take this into consideration.”

Crops that take up a lot of room for relatively small reward, such as sweetcorn, are also best avoided and it pays to look carefully at the time from sowing to harvesting when choosing varieties.

One good trick is to grow things that give a long season of cropping. Cut-and-come-again lettuce is an obvious example but you could do the same with many other crops, including chard, kale and celery.

He also points out that the leaves of beetroot and turnips can be harvested for weeks before the roots are used, giving two crops in one.

Every inch of a small plot needs to earn its keep and successional sowing is a good way of making sure ground is never idle. A chart giving four possible crop plans is just one of many handy charts and there are also suggestions for things that will grow in shade.

tiny garden huge harvest
Chard can be harvested over many weeks

Having outlined what to grow, the book turns to how to plan your space. This covers traditional small gardens, balconies, containers and even vertical gardens in a bookcase-sized area: “Imagine you are in a library standing in front of a shelf full of books – except instead of books, these shelves are lined with potted plants.” Even potatoes, cabbage and squash could be grown using this method, he says, while a trickle-down watering system is easy and efficient.

The book is small – just over 60 pages – pocket-sized, making it ideal for use outside, and easy to read with Warnock’s ideas clearly and simply explained. Unfortunately, while his ideas of sustainable, grow-your-own living are very current, the book has a rather dated feel due to the black-and-white photos, used, presumably, to keep production costs down.

It’s worth ignoring the initial impression this gives as the book has many easy and interesting ideas and, while it doesn’t cover how to grow, it would be ideal for novice or established gardeners who want to get more out of their garden.

Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock is published by Familius, RRP £4.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Familius.

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Review: Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables

It’s so disappointing to spend weeks carefully nurturing fruit and veg only to miss picking them at the right time. Turn your back for a moment and it seems tomatoes split, radish turn bullet-like and courgettes morph into marrows. Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to take the mystery out of just when to harvest.

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The book has been produced by the Mel Bartholomew Foundation, which carries on the work of the American who started the pioneering square foot method of cultivation more than 40 years ago. He advocated growing in a 4ft by 4ft box that was subdivided into 16 squares with one type of plant per square, arguing that it required less work and produced just the right amount of produce, reducing waste.

“He had seen a lot of ripe produce go to waste in his local community simply because of inefficiency and gardener burnout,” the introduction tells us.

Yet, popular though his method has proved, it did not answer the problem of when to harvest and it’s this “missing link in the chain” that Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to provide.

The book begins with an overview of exactly what we mean by ripeness and how it occurs. We learn about crops that will continue to ripen even after harvest (climacteric), such as tomatoes and apples, and those that stop ripening as soon as they are picked (non-climacteric) with examples being cucumber and lettuce.

growing perfect vegetables

There’s advice on which fruits to ripen in a bag and a warning about “enemy plants” – those crops that don’t work well as kitchen garden neighbours; basil harms cucumber plants while strawberries compete with cabbages for nutrients.

The bulk of the book is the ‘ripeness listings’, crop by crop analysis of what to look for in a ripe veg or fruit and how to store it, both in the short-term – asparagus spears with the cut end in cool water – and in the long term, layering beets in damp sand for the winter. And it’s not just for the kitchen gardener as how to choose the perfect shop-bought produce is also covered.

The listings are divided into three: crops that will grow inside the square foot system; those that have to be grown outside, such as fruit trees; crops that are generally imported into the USA, such as avocados and bananas.

There are nuggets of additional advice scattered through: wear gloves to pick aubergines because of their spiny stems; restore limp radish by soaking in ice water; snipping off the foliage on a cantaloupe melon decreases rather than increases the sweetness.

growing perfect vegetables

Also useful are lists of the crops with the shortest shelf-life; the 10 healthiest fruit and veg and the most beautiful crops, such as rainbow chard and Romanesco broccoli. The book also suggests some “less-famous winter squashes” that are worth growing.

Some of the advice is of little use to a British audience – who has a problem with racoons? – and some of the crops lose a little in translation; I’m still not completely sure what a pole bean is, while you have to read closely to work out that cilantro is what we know as coriander.

Growing Perfect Vegetables is also, despite the title, not a guide to growing but harvesting once you’ve successfully raised your crops.

But, if you’ve ever puzzled over whether a leek is ready to pull or how to extend the ripeness of apples, this book will more than solve your problem.

Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP 11.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

Win some Dalefoot Compost

Like many gardeners, I don’t like using peat and over the years I’ve tried many alternatives. One of my favourites is Dalefoot Composts – not least because it uses renewable ingredients to produce soil improvers and composts.

Dalefoot was set up by Cumbrian hill farmer Simon Bland and his wife Jane Barker, who has a doctorate in environmental science. Drawing inspiration from old gardening books, which described using bracken as fertiliser and sheep’s wool as a method of water retention, they have combined the two to produce composts that can be used as a planting medium or dug into borders to improve the soil.

The bracken, traditionally cut for animal bedding, is harvested as part of the upland management to improve the area’s biodiversity, and the wool comes from the farm’s own flock.

“By harvesting the often ‘waist-high’ bracken we make it much easier and safer to gather our sheep, whilst reducing the cover of this ever-spreading scourge of many uplands,” explains Jane.

“We use wool from our neighbours’ Herdwick and Swaledale sheep to share the benefits of our farm diversification. Plus, using the natural materials on our doorstep makes the perfect recipe for a really sustainable compost.”

Bracken is high in high in potash, while wool has nitrogen, released slowly as it breaks down, and can hold around 35 times its own weight in water.

Dalefoot

It took the couple about 12 years to develop the range, trialling it first with local gardeners before beginning to sell it by mail order and at shows, including Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court. It is also available through some garden centres and shops, such as Allomorphic in Stroud.

“Our peat-free composts give gardeners the option of growing in earth-friendly composts that really work and we’re delighted that professional growers are now using them and winning gold medals at shows like RHS Chelsea,” adds Jane.

The range covers all sorts of gardening and all sorts of gardens. The basic ‘Wool Compost’ is ready to use in potting up or planting out.

‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ is designed to be mixed with soil or spent compost, such as the contents of old growbags. It’s ideal for improving thirsty ground like the sandy soil in my garden.

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I’ve been trying out the Dalefoot seed compost

In contrast, ‘Lakeland Gold’ is designed as a ‘clay-buster’ for those with heavy soil while Wool Compost ‘Ericaceous’, as the name suggests, is ideal for planting acid-lovers, such as rhododendrons. It comes in normal and double strength.

Recent additions to the range include a seed compost, which I have trialled and found easy to use, while my seedlings seem to love it. There is also a compost for vegetables and salads, ideal for containers.

• Dalefoot, which was recently featured on BBC 2’s Back to the Land, will be at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival from May 11-14, 2017.

Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win some Dalefoot Compost.

Plants, history and contest plans

Gardeners in Cheltenham are hosting a plant fair and getting an insight into the history of vegetable growing.

Tomatoes will be among the plants at the fair

Lynda Warren will be talking about her father’s experience and her own research in ‘The Wartime Kitchen Garden’.

The talk is being hosted by Charlton Kings in Bloom, a voluntary group that promotes gardening in the Charlton Kings area of Cheltenham.

Members are also planning a plant fair outside the King’s Hall on May 13 from 9am to noon with vegetables, including tomatoes, annuals and perennials.

And the annual garden competition will take place later in the year.

The talk will be held at the Stanton Rooms, Charlton Kings in Cheltenham on Friday April 28, 2017. It starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £6 to include refreshments. They are available from The Forge newsagent (01242 523729).

For more details about Charlton Kings in Bloom, visit the website.

Review: The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow by Ben Raskin

Aside from the ravages of slugs, the menace of ground elder and the weather, two topics often crop up in my conversations with gardeners: how to encourage the next generation and the difficulty of growing in towns where space is short. So, it seems appropriate in the midst of National Gardening Week to be looking at two new books that tackle those issues.

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The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow have been written by Ben Raskin and draw on his experience both as Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association and as a father of two.

In them, he seeks to encourage us all to discover the joys of growing – whatever the space available or whatever our age.

The Community Gardening Handbook is a comprehensive guide on how to join a fast-growing movement in towns and cities across the world.

“There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some growing space,” Raskin assures us before going on to outline some solutions.

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Although he includes the more solitary individual allotment plot or rooftop garden, it’s clear his real passion is for group gardening and even the allotment section has ideas on how to collaborate with other growers.

Novel space solutions include ‘portable gardens’ in skips, sand delivery bags or trailers while he suggests land awaiting development or the corners of parks could yield growing room.

Guerrilla gardening, where otherwise neglected public space is cultivated, is also considered, although he concedes planting up potholes would be more a statement on road repairs than a horticultural benefit.

Having established the parameters, each with practical considerations that would need to be considered and often with an example from across the world of where it has worked, he goes on to lay down a route to a successful community garden.

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And it is thorough. Everything is covered from how to drum up support and, importantly, money to legal issues and how to ensure the project lasts more than one season. There’s even advice on running a public meeting.

More practical advice comes in sections on how to grow, including planning, watering and crop rotation, and what to grow with a list of his favourite crops complete with cultivation notes.

Despite the wealth of advice packed into the book, it is an easy read thanks to the layout and numerous photos.

As a handbook, it would provide a firm foundation to any new community project but much of the growing advice, such as saving seed and calendar of tasks, is suitable for any new gardener.

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It’s new gardeners that Raskin is particularly concerned with in his other book, Grow. Billed as a family guide to growing fruit and veg, it is obviously designed with younger members in mind.

Colourful, illustration-heavy pages and a chatty style give it a children’s book quality. Yet, again it is packed with sound advice ranging from the structure of plants and what they need to grow to planning a veg garden and how to sow seeds. There’s even a simplified version of the periodic table showing what chemicals plants need and a checklist for spotting deficiencies.

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Pages of stickers – ‘Top Gardener!’ and ‘I Dig Fruit and Veg’ – add appeal for younger readers and there are two games, a gardening version of snakes and ladders and a card game pairing fruits, to encourage participation while a recipe for pizza suggests using vegetables from the garden for the topping.

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With a list of his top ten crops to try and a great ‘growing wheel’ showing how long things take to mature, there’s plenty to inspire and the book would be ideal as a starting point to getting children growing.

The Community Gardening Handbook (buy now) and Grow (buy now) are written by Ben Raskin and published by Leaping Hare Press. Both are priced at £9.99 RRP. (If you buy through the link, I may receive a small fee and the price you pay will not be affected.)

Review copies supplied by Leaping Hare Press.

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Review: Good Soil by Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist & Justine Lagache

For many gardeners, feeding the soil is like the plumbing in a house, essential but frankly uninspiring. Indeed, the women behind Good Soil admit manures and fertilisers are unglamorous. It’s an image they seem determined to change.

From the start, it’s clear this is no ordinary book on the topic. Artwork images, catchy chapter titles – ‘Beauty Sleep’, ‘Magic Carpets’ – and a magazine-style layout lend a sheen of glamour to topics that plumb the very depths of the subject from the effects of different nutrients on plants to how to make a urine tea and the value of composting toilets.

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The book has been beautifully styled

It’s written by Tina Råman, with photos by Ewa-Marie Rundquist and design by Justine Lagache. The trio make it clear that there is far more to good soil than just adding a bit of homemade compost or a dose of plant food. Only by understanding exactly what plants need from the basic nutrients to trace elements will we get the very best results.

The scope of the book is wide starting with why feeding plants is important and moving through different types of manure – cow, horse and even goat – to exactly how to make compost and what biochar is.

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Manure in all its forms is explained

There’s a section on how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them, an examination of the whole organic versus artificial fertiliser debate, and advice on mulches.

Scattered through the book are ‘guest’ appearances by some of Sweden’s foremost gardeners, including Lars Krantz of Wij Gardens, who talks about the need to understand your soil’s temperament, and Göran and Margareta Hoas, whose organic farm is world-renowned.

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Knowing the make-up of your soil is essential

Given the amount of scientific fact that is packed into Good Soil, there was a danger it could have ended up reading like a school textbook. That this trap is avoided is largely down to the jaunty style. Plants, we are told, like “to snack” and the soil is seen as a larder for their food and drink. This meal-time theme runs throughout with compost compared to stock and an application of fertiliser in spring referred to as ‘a hearty breakfast’.

Having examined the reasons for feeding the soil, the authors turn in the later chapters to the different elements of the garden: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables. What to apply and, more importantly, when is explained, with a useful ‘diary’ and rotation plan.

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Fertilising needs to follow the seasons

Some plants, we are told, benefit from growing together, such as, rather aptly, peas and mint, while putting beans among your spuds is another suggestion as the beans “seem to have a ‘generally favourable influence’ on their bedmates”.

It’s useful tips like this that make the book a winner if you want to really understand how to feed the soil rather than the plant.

At the outset, the trio say “being able to wallow in manure has been great fun”. They have done it in style.

Good Soil by Tina Råman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I get a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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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.

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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.

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‘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? 

Taking stock: a garden review

January may be the time for resolutions and planning but there’s a lot to be said for pausing between the gardening years to take stock and learn from the past year.

The highs

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Strawberries were the season’s highlight

Thinking back over the year, the strawberries sprung the biggest surprise. Now in their second season, they started fruiting as expected in early June and didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was still picking fruit in late October and the plants had unripe fruit and even flowers in December. A helping of fertiliser in spring will be important after all that effort and I will start to gather runners to replace the plants at the end of this summer.

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The strawberries were still trying to fruit in late autumn

They weren’t the only fruit to do well: the raspberries – summer, autumn and a mystery yellow variety – all produced bumper crops. Our ancient apple tree decided 2016 would be a productive year (it takes some years off) and we managed to get the gooseberries netted before the garden’s resident pigeons spotted them.

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We got to the gooseberries first

Remembering to pinch out the tops of the broad beans helped with blackfly; the rhubarb moved with astonishing speed from pink mounds in the soil to enormous leaves atop thick red stems but was still harvested before turning fibrous; most of the beans – French and runner – were picked before getting too big, with those that escaped ‘podded’ to use as haricot.

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Most of the beans were harvested at the right time!

It was also a good year for flowers – often those planned by nature rather than me. The foxgloves put on a spectacular show, having seeded themselves in a corner.

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The foxgloves chose their own spot

More plants have been appearing throughout the year – often in the veg beds – and these have been transplanted while the spent flowers from this year were left until the seed was dry and this was then sprinkled in the same corner. Hopefully this will ensure a good display this year and next.

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I wish I could take credit for the marigolds

Even better if only for the weeks of colour they provided, were the marigolds. The descendants of plants grown from seed nearly 15 years ago, they pop up all over the vegetable garden in a mass of yellow, orange and every shade in between. This year, they have flowered prolifically and were finally silenced in late November by our first hard frost.

The crab apple put on its usual ‘strawberries and cream’ show, there was a white cloud of cherry blossom for all too short a spell and the summer was followed by spectacular autumn colour.

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The autumn colour was stunning

Most pleasing was the passion flower, grown from a cutting by my dad, starting to cover its trellis and screen the leaf mould bays; fingers crossed it comes through the winter intact.

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I’m hoping the passion flower comes through the winter intact

The lows

No gardener gets it all right and there have been more than a few plans that have gone astray in my plot.

Perhaps the most surprising disappointment was the courgettes. Normally we have so many I resort to ‘hiding’ them in soup, pasta sauces and even chocolate cake. This year, I put the plants out as usual and waited, and waited. The plants simply failed to grow and by the end of the summer many were little bigger than when they were put out.

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Courgettes weren’t plentiful last year

Talking to other gardeners, it seems the cold nights that seemed to last all summer were to blame and the courgettes were simply sulking.

Cool temperatures also took their toll on the rest of the squash family with the slow start making the season too short to achieve much. I did harvest some butternut and ‘Crown Prince’ but not as many as in previous seasons.

garden review
The squash haul was disappointing

There was a near disaster with the tomatoes. Again, the plants were slow to grow and even slower to set fruit and then blight took hold. Complete failure was averted only by picking all the fruit and ripening it indoors.

garden review
Picking the tomatoes early was the only option

While the flavour is not as good as sun-ripened and yields were down, it did mean we were eating home-grown tomatoes right into December.

garden review
Once indoors the tomatoes slowly ripened

In the flower borders, a late frost badly damaged what had been a bud-laden wisteria. I resigned myself to a year without its lovely mauve blooms only for a few to appear some weeks later. It was nowhere near as good as it might have been but I was grateful for some colour.

garden review
Frost badly hit the wisteria

It’s also been a year of inexplicable death – or near-death. First to succumb was Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which almost overnight stopped growing. Then a large tree-like cotoneaster shrivelled, a Lonicera fragrantissima started to die back and large areas of dead wood appeared in Choisya ternata.

The viburnum has been removed – not without difficulty as it was underplanted with bulbs and hellebores – as has the cotoneaster, while the other two have been cut back to new growth that was shooting from the base. Meanwhile, I am anxiously watching a Viburnum opulus, which seems to be ailing.

The hopes

Looking ahead, 2017 is going to be a year of overhaul. Some parts of the garden, now into their 20th year, are badly in need of rethinking.

Already, the removal of the viburnum and some solidago that had colonised the border has created a huge planting opportunity. The loss of the cotoneaster has removed an important screen and turned what was a shady area into one with more light. Some research will be required before the gap is filled.

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I’m hoping for a good harvest this season

As for the veg, new paving to replace the chipped bark paths that the badger and mole jointly destroyed should make life easier; at one point I was spending more time weeding the paths than the beds.

I’m also determined to plant more Cavolo Nero and chard next year – we had nowhere near enough of these family favourites – and I will persevere with the courgettes and tomatoes. After all, optimism is a gardener’s best friend.

• What have been the highs and lows of your gardening year?