Get healthy: homegrown fruit & veg

With more information available than ever on health and eating well, fruit and vegetables are in the limelight. However, packaged supermarket veg can often be bland and uninspiring, so think about growing your own to experience the benefits…

1. Flavour and nutrients

It’s true. Homegrown really does taste better. Picking something from the vine or pulling it out of the ground just before cooking is as fresh as it gets, and the lack of packaging and mass production means the taste is flavour is vastly improved. A study from Kew Gardens found that homegrown tomatoes tasted sweeter and had a higher level of health improving nutrients – so they’re better for you too.

2. Seasonal eating

When everything is available all year round, we’re losing touch with how food is grown and what is seasonal. Growing your own veg helps reconnect us to nature, showing how weather impacts the food we eat and allowing us to enjoy the very best and tastiest seasonal food. It also feels more natural and far better to avoid things flown hundreds of miles.

3. Taste the rainbow

It’s easy to get bored of the same salads if you’re conscious of eating well. Growing a range of veg – even if it’s just some greens and different root veg – can open our eyes to other options and allow us to try varieties that are harder to get hold of in shops. Purple carrots, for example, that might cost a fortune in a health food store can easily be grown for an unusual addition to supper time.

4. What it’s made of

I like knowing that anything I’ve grown is a product of the conditions I’ve provided, and I have complete knowledge of what’s been added – or not added – to make it grow. Whatever method you choose, growing your own lets you know exactly what you’re eating.

5. Food appreciation

After the first homegrown vegetable, you’ll certainly think twice about throwing away veg or leaving it on your plate. Not only will you eat more of the healthy stuff when it’s right on your doorstep/windowsill, but you’ll be more mindful about what you’re putting in your body and how it’s been created. It might be a bit misshapen but pride in your homegrown prizes will mean seasonal cooking and benefits to the body, mind and environment.

 

Herbal tea! Grow your own

Brits love tea, and we spend a lot of money on our favourite teabags. Cleansing, detoxifying and full of antioxidants, fresh herbal teas have never been more popular, so why not grow your own? 

Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow. They’re straight forward to sow and maintain, needing relatively little space or time. They will even grow happily on windowsills for those without a garden. 

If you want leaves you can pick and use fresh without drying, choose mint, basil, chamomile or lemon balm. For something slightly sweeter, raspberry and blackberry leaves work well too. 

When picking from your plants, look for strong healthy leaves, and harvest in the morning when the leaves contain the most essential oils. Pick several large leaves for each mug, and rinse thoroughly. Make sure they’re from your garden and not roadsides etc, as you want to know exactly what you’re drinking… 

Then tear or crush the leaves slightly to release flavour and essential oils, and pour boiling water over to soak for around 10 minutes – depending on how strong you like it. Then strain and pour into mugs, it’s that simple. 

You can also create teas through combining different leaves, and even the flowers and roots of some plants. Lavender buds and dandelion roots work well, but always check your choosing edible parts of plants, as you can’t eat everything that grows in your garden. 

If you’ve got more time, certain leaves, such as chamomile, work well dried, and can be preserved for future use or giving away. Oven drying or short bursts in the microwave will dehydrate leaves so they can be stored. Keep them in labelled air tight containers or sandwich bags. 

Experimenting with home-grown teas is cheap and rewarding, helping us get more green in our lives and homes, as well as nutrients and health benefits from growing your own. 

 

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Tomato Challenge: Next steps!

This year I undertook the very ambitious task of growing 100 ‘Sweet Aperitif‘ tomato plants from Thompson and Morgan seeds in my tiny London garden, with the aim of giving them to non-gardeners and helping them nurture their first homegrown produce.

After hiccups with weather, transporting and space, I’m delighted that lots of my new tomato owners are enjoying their flourishing plants! Here are the basic steps to take to make sure they continue to grow happily and produce fruit…

  1. Get a bigger pot

If you haven’t repotted your tomato plant already, now is the time. It will be towering above its small plastic pot, with the roots struggling for space and stunting its growth. Buy a larger pot (20cm ideally) and some multipurpose compost, or improvise with any large container – buckets, crates etc – to save money. Just make sure it has a hole in for drainage. Fill the new pot halfway with compost, then carefully remove the old pot and place the plant in its new home. You’ll then need to fill the pot with compost around its base to firm it in.

2. Pinching out

This fairly strange phrase means removing the lower shoots of the plant to ensure the energy is concentrated on producing flowers and fruit on the established branches. It seems brutal, but all you need to do is pinch off the new, smaller shoots coming from the main stem with your nails. Think of it as redirecting the water and nutrients to the right place.

3. Drinks on you

Seeing as we’re having very unpredictable weather, you’ll need to play it by ear when it comes to watering. During hot weather, tomato plants will need watering every day to ensure the compost remains moist and the leaves do not curl up. If this happens, give the plant a good soak and it should be revitalised. During wet weather, don’t over water, but keep an eye and only give it a drink if the compost starts to dry out.

4. Hungry plants 

As soon as flowers appear on the plant, I suggest giving the plant some food – such as Tomorite. This can just be added to the watering can (read the back of the tub) once a week to provide extra nutrients. Supporting the plant this way will mean more flowers appear and turn into healthy tomatoes.

5. Keep it upright

With rapid growth and July’s unexpected winds, you might find your plant struggling to stay vertical. All you need is a long stick – a cane, pole or straight branch will do – and gently push it in to the compost next to the stem. Then tie the plant loosely but firmly with string or wire to the support.

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Tomato plant ready for repotting

Looking after gardeners’ hands

Outdoor activities always take their toll on hands, and gardeners are renowned for dirty fingernails and rough skin. As much as I love getting my hands dirty, living and working in the city means it’s important to keep skin and nails healthy and presentable.

A good thing about urban gardening is that it involves significantly less manual labour than large countryside spaces. If you’re growing herbs and veg on your balcony or roof garden, there’s much less digging and carrying, meaning our hands have a slightly easier time. However, we still need to look after them, so the two golden rules are…

  1. Wear gloves

Gardening gloves are not just ugly and floral, designed for old ladies. You can actually just wear any gloves for light gardening, or get some super nice ones – Burgeon & Ball ‘Love the Glove’ Gatsby, and Briers William Morris strawberry thief gloves are my favourites.

  1. Hand care 

I don’t use a lot of products, and those I do use contain natural botanicals with sustainably grown ingredients. My best is Bramley Lavender, Geranium and Petitgrain hand cream, which is inspired by the therapeutic properties of plants, and moisturises and soothes hard working hands. All Bramley products are made in the Somerset countryside, produced in small batches to retain freshness and the quality of the essential oils. This is one to try, whether you do a lot of gardening or just enjoy uplifting botanical skin care.

Q&A: How to water a plant…

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Watering plants is probably the thing I get asked about the most. In theory it should be very simple, but over or under watering is the quickest way to kill off our green friends.

Here’s a quick guide that should help:

  • How often should I water my houseplant?

Indoor plants in a light, well ventilated area should need watering once a week. HOWEVER, check the soil regularly – if it’s dry and crumbly it needs more, and if it’s still damp when you go to water then hold off.

  • How often should I water my cactus?

These trendy little plants are pretty resilient, but don’t go overboard on watering. They originate from hot climates, and have two seasons – active and dormant. Water every two weeks during the spring and summer when the plant is growing, and drop down to once a month during the winter when it goes into its hibernation period.

  • Do all plants need the same amount of water?

No, plants need different conditions and therefor have different watering requirements. When buying plants, check where they’re from and the climates they like best to make sure you match this when caring for it. Some thrive in slightly dry soil, while others – particularly young or tender plants – might need more water to aid growth.

  • Does size matter?

Yes, larger plants require more water, whereas small ones might just need regular sprinkling. Pot size plays a huge role and will all impact how often a plant needs to be watered. Small pots dry out much faster and can hold less water, so these will need a drink more often than their larger friends.

  • Whats the difference between indoor and outdoor watering?

If the plants are indoors they’re completely relying on you for water when they need it, and hot or sunny spots will make plants dry out faster. If possible, place saucers under pots or water them in the sink to avoid brown water ruining your carpets and surfaces. With outdoor plants, you’ll need to consider temperature and rainfall. Usually, its not necessary to water during winter as they’ll be getting plenty of rain, but during hot summer time they’ll often need a good soaking every day. It’s not an exact science, so keep an eye on the compost and how healthy the plant looks, watering accordingly.

  • Do I drench it or give it a light sprinkling?

Generally, it’s better to give a plant a good drink at regular intervals, rather than sprinkling it all the time. Obviously the amount it needs depends on size, so water deeply until it starts to trickle out of the drainage holes. Remember, the roots will run to the bottom of the pot, so make sure you’re not just wetting the surface.

  • How do I water plants in the ground?

Plants and trees in the ground will have larger roots and access to rainfall, so are less reliant on us. However, during the summer the ground can get extremely dry, so flower beds and hedges will often need a good soaking every few days to keep them looking fresh.

  • What time of day should I water?

It’s best to water at the coolest time of the day, as this means less water evaporates and the plants benefit more. Also, watering in peak sunshine can mean water droplets on leaves lead to scorching, as they magnify the sun’s rays. Early morning before work is best, as the plants are then well equipped to survive a hot day.

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Why plant trees in a concrete jungle?

In Amidst tarmac and concrete, trees are a welcome sight for sore eyes. However, rather than just ‘looking nice’ there are many reasons why we should welcome them in the city, both in public spaces and our own back gardens…

1.Reduce air pollution

Last October a BBC report stated that trees significantly cut air pollution, with the average reduction of particulate matter near a tree being 7% – 24%. This means that areas with trees – such as parks or gardens – are much healthier environments to spend time in and reduce the amount of damaging pollution we’re exposed to. Aside from the advantages for us, maximising the amount of trees being planted is hugely beneficial to the environment, reducing harmful gasses and providing habitats to wildlife.

2. Block noise and ugly things

In the city we live in close proximity to our neighbours and busy roads, and we don’t have much control over the sights and sounds around our homes. However, many are surprised to hear how effective trees can be in creating barriers to the outside world. Not only do they screen ugly buildings and create privacy, but they’re good at blocking noise and reduce sounds of the city. Laurel bushes and trees such as birch and cherry make good additions to garden boarders, while thick evergreen trees are best for creating sound barriers.

3. Improve health and wellbeing

Being surrounded by nature helps us unwind and reconnect with ourselves, reducing stress and giving a welcomed escape from technology and the pressures of daily life. You don’t have to book an escape to the country for this, but can enjoy the benefits of a green oasis everyday by spending time in parks and gardens amongst plants and trees. If you’ve got any outdoor space at all, add some small trees – even if they’re potted varieties – to give you your green fix before and after the daily commute.

4. Increase house prices

Londoners love talking (and moaning) about house prices. If you’ve managed to get on the property ladder, you’ll be interested to know that well maintained gardens can add a huge 20% to house value. It’s common to see houses with a small concrete patch of outdoor space used as a dumping ground for bikes/broken appliances/bin bags etc, however, this is a serious missed opportunity. When you’ve got your own home, not only will you enjoy the benefits of creating a simple garden, but you’re likely to find it boosts the value of your home as well. Start by adding some trees and shrubs to create privacy, then consider pots or raised beds, as well as a small seating area to maximise the space.

It’s hot: Grow chilli peppers

Like anything you grow yourself, homegrown chilli peppers are on another level when it comes to taste and nutrients. The good news is they’re easy to keep, look great as a houseplant or in the garden, and generally produce lots of chillies for cooking throughout the year.

This year I’m growing Mr Fothergill’s Lemon Drop variety, which is new to the collection this season. However, there are lots of different types depending on your taste and how much heat you can handle. Seeds and plants are readily available and can be grown indoors or outside. This is how to do it…

Growing from seed

Chilli peppers are best sown early in the year, as they need lots of time to ripen and reach full flavour. I started mine in February, but its also fine to leave them until later in the spring. Push seeds into small pots or trays at around 1.5cm deep, then cover over the compost and water well. Keep the pots at around 20-25oc and constantly moist until germination. When they’re big enough to lift out without breaking, replant in slightly larger pots to give them space to grow. The little plants like being warm, so you’ll need to make sure its heated up outside (May/June) before you harden them off. This means giving them good ventilation and allowing them to stand outside in good weather for a few hours a day until they’re used to it and can go out full time.

Buying plants

If you choose to buy plants (available from supermarkets / garden centres / online) then they will generally be at the final stage above. By this point they’ll be ready to plant outside, so pot them up in larger pots or containers in a sunny but sheltered place. Remember, plants in containers dry out really quickly and will need regular watering – up to twice a day during the summer. This seems like a commitment but is definitely worth it.

The actual chillies 

Depending on when you started growing the plants and what stage they’re at, they will produce fruit from July to October. Rather than pulling the chillies off, cut them with a knife or sharp scissors, and do it as regularly as possible to encourage more to grow. It depends on what variety you’ve got, but they will vary in colour at different stages of ripeness (read the packet or google). Ones left the longest will have the strongest and often hottest flavour.

What then?

Add to recipes and enjoy, or if you’ve got lots to spare, thread them together to dry for use later. It looks particularly impressive when they’re hanging up in the kitchen and you probably wont want to eat them at all. You can also freeze them in freezer bags, but defrosted chillies will have a slightly milder taste.

Chillipepper.packet

Why visit Chelsea Flower Show?

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the highlight of the gardening year and the most prestigious event in the industry – but it’s also so much more. Rather than a bunch of horticulture experts examining vases of flowers, as some might think, it is a hugely impressive, eclectic mix of design, nature and beauty – as well as lots of champagne and (usually) sunshine.

I was lucky enough to experience the opening of Chelsea Flower Show 2017 at today’s press day. Alongside the celebs, flowers, frocks, royals and lots of photographers, the event showcased some of the top garden designs in the world, exploring global themes and demonstrating the jaw-dropping possibilities of horticulture.

This year, show gardens include the Silk Road Garden – Chengdu ChinaGreening Grey Britain GardenThe Bermuda TriangleSeedlip Garden and Inland Homes: Beneath a Mexican Sky. And yes, they really are as great as their names, providing awe and inspiration even to those who’ve never grown a thing. The Great Pavilion (famously big enough to park 500 London buses) houses hundreds of spectacular exhibits, as well as the Discovery Area, with features such as Miracle-Gro’s Ecotherapy garden, designed to highlight young people’s mental health issues.

If that’s not enough, CFS is also famous for its exquisite culinary options, this year including the Jardin Blanc with Raymond Blanc, and Champagne & Seafood restaurant.

It is not a cheap day out but it is certainly a good one, and I would definitely encourage anyone to visit if they’re interested in beautiful design, contemporary themes, nature and thoughtful messages – and of course shopping and champagne…

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The Tomato Challenge

Growing your own fruit and veg boosts your diet with nutrients, helps you eat seasonably and sustainably, and keeps you connected with nature from the city.

Why don’t more of us do it? Because it takes time, we don’t understand the benefits, and we just don’t know where to start!

This year I’m launching the Tomato Challenge as a way to get more people interested in growing things from their tiny city patios or balconies. Using Thompson & Morgan’s Sweet Aperitif tomato seeds, I’m growing 100 tomato seedlings and giving them away to non-gardeners working in the city. As most of these people won’t ever have considered growing anything before, I’ll be posting regular updates and advice on my blog and Instagram, helping my growers keep their plants alive and producing hundreds of tomatoes by the end of the summer.

Equipped with the plants and knowledge, I’m interested in how many people enjoy growing their own produce and are inspired to do it again once they realise how delicious and satisfying it is.

Unpredictable weather has meant growing the 100 plants from seed in my bath – I’m lucky that 1) I have a huge bath tub under a window, and 2) I have very understanding housemates. They are finally ready to go to their new homes!!

For updates, keep an eye on my blog and follow @the.garden.fairy on Instagram. Drop me a line if you’re keen to get involved, and keep sending me photos of your progress if you’ve got one of the hundred!

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Proud tomato plant owner – 1/100

 

Everyone Loves Strawberries

Whether you eat them sitting on the common or put them in your morning smoothie, Londoners love strawberries – although very few think to grow their own. Strawberries are not only expensive at supermarkets, but are so much tastier and packed full of nutrients when homegrown and eaten fresh from the plant.

Also, the flowers are pretty and they’re VERY easy to grow – even if you’ve got a tiny patio or window box.

There are three main types of strawberries.

  1. Alpine / Wild Strawberries – small sweet fruits from July – September
  2. Summer fruiting Strawberries – heavy harvest of fruits in early summer
  3. Perpetual fruiting Strawberries – ongoing fruits until autumn

You can either grow them from seed, or buy small plants from a garden centre for a faster harvest in time for summer. Strawberries like sunny but sheltered spots, so they work well for patio gardens, either in pots or beds. They are best planted in autumn or spring – so if you’re considering it, now is a good time.

When you’ve bought your plants, fill the chosen container with compost (almost to the top), dig a hole the size of the plant and carefully place it in, firming more compost around the base of the plant. If they’re in raised beds then place them about 25-30 inches apart, or place one or two in a large pot.

Water well, keeping an eye on pots as they dry out easily. Fertiliser every week or so helps keep plants healthy, and strong fruiting can be encouraged by switching to a high-potash feed once flowers appear.

Depending on the variety you’ve chosen, fruits should appear in early summer. There’s a chance you’ll need to protect ripening fruits with netting if birds are pinching them, but unfortunately birds are less common in urban spaces, so this might not be a problem. Pick your strawbs when they’ve turned red all over during the hottest part of the day – this is when they’re most flavoursome!

Full of antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals, it’s a dream to have a strawberry supply in your own garden throughout the summer. If I manage not to eat them all at once, I like mine served cold with yogurt or thrown into a smoothie…