• Creative Writing Courses at Dundee University

    From Tues 18 October I will be running two new creative writing courses, Introduction to Short Fiction, looking at the short story, and Introduction to Novel writing, looking at planning and structuring a novel.  The courses will consist of a combination of exercises and peer review.  For more info or to book check out the Dundee University Continuing Education brochure.  For information only contact me via this website.

  • Why I Write

    I have always found that there is nothing more boring than a writer who writes about writing.  I’m not sure why  – I think I’ve just always found something slightly irritating in the assumption that someone who reads my fiction is going to be interested in the process behind the story.  When I read a novel, I read it for the story alone.  If it’s a good book, I forget that somebody has actually made it all up.  To find out more about the process only reminds me of that.

    Perhaps it is also because there is something slightly naval gazing about the examination of the imperative to write, as if it is something mysterious, something God given, some gift, or purpose, that only a certain breed of person has – the writer, the author, who somehow sees things differently for the rest of us.

    I don’t believe this.  I think there is a writer in all of us.  Not a good writer, necessarily, not someone who has made the study of
    the meaning and patterns of language a large part of their life. What I mean is that the need to communicate is the basis of all humanity. It doesn’t always manifest itself in words, of course. We communicate in pictures, through music, and mathematics, although I’m sure that this blog expressed in equations would only be slightly more interesting than a writer who writes about writing.

    Why do I write? It may be because my parents wanted me to – and I was a fairly placid child – happy to do anything to keep everyone happy. It may be because I won a writing competition when I was five with a small masterpiece entitled the sun, moon and stars (with a slightly macabre illustration of an astronaut being exploded by the sun). It might be because I gave up my job to do it, and so was bloody well going to do it, or else.

    But now that I am ‘a writer’, and have discovered the disappointing lack of mortgage settling advances and movie deals, have battled with the isolation of working from home, the intensity of switching constantly from contemplative, imaginary worlds to the
    very real, immediate, and practical demands of family and work, why do I still want to do it?

    I suspect, unfortunately, that the truth is very much less about me, and very much more about the human condition, the need to escape from the isolation of our boxes of skin, and tell people how the world looks to us.  Every expression we make, from the masterpiece in the national gallery, to the tv show you watched last night, to the noise, gesture or ugly face made by the hungry baby – is an effort to tell others something about our own subjective experience of the world.

    My brother and self appointed publicist recently wanted to put a heading on my website.  Writer, Gardener, Mother.  I was horrified.  My husband doesn’t put R&D Director, father, on his businesscard, I said.  But then maybe he should.  Perhaps writers,
    like everyone else, need to remember that their identities do not come solely from their occupation.  Recently, when I asked my five year old daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said ‘I’m going to be a doctor and a mummy and a cyclist and a reader.”  And why not?

    I write as a way of exploring the human condition, the strange twisting logic of cause and effect.  I write to tell others how I feel about things, and why.  I write to escape from my skin, to reach out to the living world around me, to become something other than the limits of myself.   I write because I believe that I should, because I believe that we all should.  Because the drive to communicate is not just an imperative, but a duty.

    But I am not a writer.   I am a writer and a mother and a gardener and a teacher and a cook and a cleaner and a reader and many other things.  In other words, I am a person who writes.

  • Glut or nothing

    Maths is not my favourite subject – but even I can work out this equation.  Garden compost+Sun+rain+sun+rain+sun and a little more rain=far too much spinach.

    Half of the trick of growing your own veg is knowing what to do with it when you get it.  Home grown veg doesn’t come in convenient bags in family of four quantities.  With most veg it’s all or nothing, drought or glut.  At this time of year the glut is
    mainly in leaves, oriental leaves, lettuce and spinach.  It isn’t helped by the fact that my early season impatience for anything to appear usually results in my sowing far too much.  I also have to fight the temptation to stop sowing when the glut appears, forgetting that, while I have leaves in abundance now, if I don’t sow more, I’ll have nothing in six weeks.

    So if you want to grow your own, it’s worthwhile taking a bit of time to think about storing and preserving.  I’ll be talking about how I store and preserve crops as the season goes on, but right now I’ll talk about what I’ve been doing with my overabundance of leaves.

     

    Spinach going to seed

    Gluts always seem to happen just as the weather is warming up, and you want to be anywhere but in the kitchen, cooking down several pounds of spinach.  But even though it might seem like an enormous task, don’t put it off.  Even if you don’t have time to cook and preserve, cut them down anyway – a plant run to seed is no good to anyone.  Pick off flower heads as soon as you see them, and try to avoid getting to that stage by not letting things get dry and cutting frequently.  Put them in a freezer bag or carrier bag, earth and all, as soon as they are cut, and seal.  Often leaves will keep in the fridge for several days like this (the exception being spinach which usually wilts).

    I always try to cook things in the morning or evening (or even better get my husband to do it.)  Here’s what I’m doing with my current gluts.  Suggestions/recipes welcome:

    Spinach:  Spinach soup is a staple for lunch in our house.  Traditionally I have used onion, potato, nutmeg, butter, garlic, spinach leaves and a good chicken or vegetable stock.   You can also use white beans such as butter beans  to thicken instead of potato, which is a good option for vegetarians as it adds a bit of protein.  You add peas or broad beans for sweetness, or a cruciferous
    vegetable like Kale for an alternative to broccoli soup.  Spinach and potato curry is another option,  and I often just throw a bit of spinach into other dishes like bolognaise, not for flavour (you can’t really taste it) but for added vitamin value – if you chop it up small and don’t add too much the kids think it’s parsley.  Cooked pasta, with added butter, parmesan, crème fraiche or cream cheese and some wilted spinach is also lovely and very quick.

    If I don’t have time for any of these options – which I usually don’t – I simply wash the spinach, shake a little of the excess water off, place it in a big pot, put the lid on and put it on the lowest heat possible for around 3-5 minutes, until it has all wilted down. Then squeeze it into little balls and put in freezer bags, and you have little parcels of frozen spinach to use whenever you want.

    Kale:  I have lots of Kale right now – and I find this keeps for a long time in a plastic bag in the fridge.  If I want to freeze it, however, I blanch for two minutes in boiling water, drain into iced water, chop, whizz it in the salad spinner, and divide into meal sized portions in freezer bags (freezer bags are the world’s best invention, but I wish someone would invent an eco friendly version.  Maybe there is one out there?).  Kale pesto is also a good option, combine in the same quantities you would for normal pesto but instead  of pine nuts try toasted hazelnuts, or cashews.

    Oriental leaves:  I blanch for thirty seconds and freeze in portions for adding to stir fries and oriental soups, but haven’t thought of anything else to do with these yet.

    Lettuce:  My lettuce, lovage and pea soup was a great success, even with the kids, though personally I think it could take or leave the lovage.  Parsley would be a nice addition too.  It freezes really well.  There are various other lettuce soup options.  Other than that I have no other suggestions for preserving lettuces other than eat them as often as possible.  This year, my children have preferred the little gem hearts to the cut and come again leaves.  They are juicier and sweeter, despite not looking so pretty on the plate.

    Investing just twenty minutes every evening picking and preserving what is doing well now, will give a stock of frozen veg for months to come, and save money and time on unnecessary supermarket trips later in the year.

  • Strawberry fields forever (or for a few months anyway)

    When I first started growing things a few years ago, I read every gardening and veg growing book I could get my hands on.  After a while I realised that as useful as this could be, there was no substitute for getting out there and giving it a go, learning from trial and error.  Seeds are cheap, and everyone’s soil, climate and situation is different.

    But a weekend visit to a community allotment in Cousland near Dalkeith reminded me that watching and learning from others is even more useful.  I was amazed how well some crops were doing there, and how little storm damage there seemed to be, although I suppose it doesn’t help that my plot is south west facing and receives the brunt of the salty winds coming over the Forth.

    Getting back to my own tangled and overgrown plot was a little depressing, but it did spur me into getting out there and doing something about it, and in the end it only took a few hours.  The first plot to tackle was the strawberry bed.  Despite the damage to the polytunnels this is apparently an excellent year for strawberries.  There’s nothing comparable to the flavour of a newly ripened strawberry picked from the plant first thing in the morning, so much so that I can always forgive the birds for nibbling most of mine every year.

    Strawberries do need a bit of work, in soil preparation and protection, but whereas with carrots I have my doubts, with  trawberries, it’s worth it.   I’ve certainly got plenty of flowers and green fruits, though much smaller than the ones I saw in Cousland.  But on closer inspection I saw that the weeds had taken over, and many of the plants had sent out runners that were hidden among the weeds.  After a thorough clear out the bed was looking tidier, but I realised that essentially
    they are in the wrong soil, compacted and clay, not free draining as strawberries like best, which explains my smaller crop.  I bought this soil from Rowlawn a few years ago, and it professed to be the best quality topsoil money could buy, which it should have been at the price.  Ultimately it isn’t a substitute for my own compost, and the plants
    growing in this are doing much better.  I’ll move the bed next year to where the potatoes are growing now, which will hopefully help.  In the meantime, I spent the weekend building a protective cage to go around them, to stop the birds from feasting on what crop I have left.

    In doing so I discovered yet another complete waste of money.  I bought two packets of plastic connectors for bamboo canes, a little like build-a-balls but not quite the same, but
    discovered that even once I had got my husband to squeeze the canes into them (I couldn’t manage it myself) I still had to secure the corners with twine.  In other words, I could have just used twine in the first place.

    The next job is to find some straw to lie underneath the plants, on top of the soil, to suppress weeds but more importantly to stop the new fruits from rotting by lying on wet soil.  I’ve asked a local strawberry farmer if she has any going spare.  In the meantime, however, I’ve experimented with grass cuttings underneath the strawberries in the children’s bed.  I’ve read mixed reports about using grass cuttings, apparently they can heat up the soil too much, and obviously shouldn’t be used if you have applied weedkiller.  But I have kept the layer quite thin and it seems to be working alright so far, better than having the fruits rot in the soil or get eaten by slugs.

    Another thing I am always confused about is replacing strawberry plants.  Apparently you have to replace them every three years, but given that they all grow in the same spot and I just peg down a few runners each year, I’ve lost track of which variety is which, never mind which plants are old and which ones are new.  I just pull a few out if they don’t seem to be producing any flowers, but perhaps there’s a better method.  It would be interesting to find out about what other gardeners do.  As I learned in Cousland, there’s no substitute for seeing things done in practice.  Maybe an East Fife plots and allotments open day would be a good idea? 

  • So which one is the weed anyway?

    If I have a most hated vegetable to grow, it has to be the carrot.

    Every year I ask myself why I am growing one of the cheapest vegetables available – and one of the only ones that seems to consistently fail without my undivided attention.  Who would have thought such an ordinary vegetable could be so precious.

    But carrots are such an essential part of so many recipes, and so delicious when just pulled out of the ground, that I try, year after
    year, to sow a small patch of carrots which inevitably becomes a small patch of weeds before any of the tiny carrot seedlings see the light of day.

    Then, out of the blue, last year, success!  I actually managed to cultivate what could be described as a reasonable crop of carrots.
    Buoyed by my success, and congratulating myself as an experienced veg grower, I happily sowed a patch of carrots this year, only to find, on peeling back the fleece cover, yet another patch of weeds.

    I wasn’t prepared to give up, however, and painstakingly weeded the whole area, finding, to my surprise, that quite a few of the tiny
    seedlings are actually coming through.  Not only is this a laborious task, however, it also involves knowing exactly which
    of the thousands of tiny seedlings coming through happens to be the carrots, something that only comes with experience (and sometimes not even then.)

     

    Emerging carrot seedlings (and some weeds)

    But I think I know where I have gone wrong, both now and in
    the past, and with this in mind, here are my tips for the beginner gardener
    keen to try carrots:

    1.  Choose a weed free bed.  For beginners especially, this, to me, is by far the most important tip.  It means knowing exactly what was growing in the soil beforehand.
    Any bed where annual plants, weeds or not, have been grown the season before should not be used for carrots.  When preparing the bed, dig out every trace of perennial root, and dig in lots of sand.  When I thought about what had been grown in my bed the year before my splendid carrot success, I realised it had been potatoes, which had stopped the progress of annual weeds with their broad foliage, and had been thoroughly dug out afterwards.  Yes, weed seedlings will still appear, blown over by the wind, but the problem will be much reduced.

    2.  Avoid carrot fly.  I say this because gardening books say it.  Personally, I’ve never had an issue with it, but then I’ve always grown a resistant variety (like resistafly) and protected the crop with fleece.  For protection, fleece is cheap and it works provided there are no spaces, but a carrot fly barrier if you have time to build one (I never do) makes weeding easier.  You can also buy an expensive mini polytunnel but you’d probably be cheaper buying three years’ supply of carrots.

    3.  Grow in a raised bed, or grow a baby variety in pots.  By far my greatest successes have been with the variety sugarsnax grown in large containers.  You can also use them to surround flowers in containers, as their foliage sets of the blooms nicely.

    4.  Weed regularly after sowing.  There’s no getting away from it, but it is one of the few crops where it is better to hand weed.  The tricky bit for the new gardener is learning to recognise the difference between carrot seedlings and weeds, especially if, like me, you have lots of wild carrot growing rampantly all over your garden.  A good way to do this is to sow some seeds in a small pot near your bed, and when the seedling comes through, you can compare it to the ones in the big bed.  Pictures can help, but there’s no substitute for looking at the real thing.

    5.   Sow late.  This gives you time to hoe off the first flush of annual weeds.  The later, dryer weather (fingers crossed) should mean that weeds don’t come through as quickly as they do in early spring, and there is less risk of carrot fly damage.  This year I’ve made an early and a late sowing, both of resistafly, and will be interested to see if they are more successful than the first.

    6.  Give up and buy carrots instead.  If all fails, don’t despair.  After all, they’re cheap!  But if you’re like me, and have ever tasted a freshly grown carrot, you won’t be able to resist having a go at growing your own. 

  • Did I say I welcomed rain?

    Scotland can’t do anything by halves can it?  After a blisteringly hot April (at least on my kitchen windowsill) my poor little french beans were tricked into thinking life would always be that easy.  Now their leaves, which had grown large and deeply coloured, have been blackened and shrivelled by one night of proper Scottish gales.  Perhaps the title Cherokee Trail of Tears was accurate after all.

     

    French Beans before the storm

    This is usually the time I would wish for a polytunnel (even if just to sit in!), but it seems that even the polytunnels of Fife have been ripped to shreds by the wind.  It’s frustrating enough having lavished so much care and attention on my fragile little plants only to have them scorched to death by wind and frost, but at least I’m not having to spend £17,000 an acre to have them replaced.

    They are not completely dead yet, so I’ll give them a chance to recover.

    Other crops have suffered too.  The potato leaves are blackened at the edges, some of the broad beans have fallen over (though they were surprisingly resilient considering the strength of the gusts).

    I’ve never suffered too much of a slug problem before, but over the last few weeks they seem to have come out in force.  Many of my seedlings, especially chard and pak choi, are being nibbled to shreds.  The one courgette plant I put in the ground vanished overnight, which is the first time that has happened to me.  The ones in pots, however, survived, another good reason (which I seem  to be finding more of all the time) for growing things in pots.

    And everything in the greenhouse, as well as the greenhouse itself, seems remarkably unscathed.  I was nervous about this, as we lost quite a few tree branches on Monday night.  Still, at least it saved me the job of cutting them back.

     

    French Beans after the storm

    Positive thinking is the only way to garden in this country, especially since my approach to all this destruction is pretty much the same as usual, to do not much at all.  This is partly because my work schedule has got a bit crazy recently, and I simply haven’t got the brain space, but also because by general approach of regularly sowing far more than I need means I can usually replace a plant that has been munched entirely away.

    So, here’s my attempt at remaining positive.  Despite the decimation of the weather, we’re using oriental leaves regularly in salads, and I managed to make my first dish from the garden, spinach soup.  An onion fried in butter and olive oil, potato, spinach, a touch of nutmeg and allspice, blitzed with a little full cream milk.  Yum!  Next up is lettuce and lovage soup – which sounds to me a great way to use up the usual glut of lettuces and a little of the massive and slightly pointless lovage plant I insist on cultivating.  Plus, today I spotted our first pea pod!

     

    The first of the peas

     

    Chillis – ‘Storms, what storms?’

  • Too much of a good thing?

     

    Tomato Gardeners Delight planted out in the greenhouse

    I wasn’t ready for all this good weather.  Unfortunately neither the climate nor my garden seems to understand when I’m too busy to keep up with it.  While I was on holiday it decided to explode into a weed infested jungle.   Because of this, I’ve been far too busy attempting to tame the beast, while unpacking, getting the kids ready for school and getting myself ready for working again, to even think about writing about it.

    After a few days of intense activity at the end of the holidays I’ve barely scratched the surface.  However at least it can’t be said that things are slow to develop.  My tomatoes and chillis are huge, the broad beans and peas are shooting up nicely, the basil is bushy, and even the French beans and courgettes are poking through.  My approach of sowing the lettuces in modules this year (except for the cut and come again which I’ve sown in pots near the house) has worked much better, as usually the tiny seedlings get lost among the weeds.

    My first job was to plant out the tomatoes into their pots and construct the frames which will attempt to support their gangly habits, although I’ve never quite got the hang of this whole pinching out thing yet, which sounds a little too technical for me.  Although there’s still a risk of frost and I haven’t yet managed to replace the pane on the door of my greenhouse, the plants had simply got far too big for their windowsill position (the benefits of sowing in late January) and I am hoping that the fact they are now well developed will work in their favour.

    After trying tomato plants in a few different ways in recent years, I’ve opted for the pot rather than the growbag option, partly because it’s cheaper, and partly because without an expensive grobag support it’s impossible to construct a frame in the shallow foundations of the grobag, unless you have an earth floor in your greenhouse (I have concrete).  Internet advice suggested the best thing to do was to stick bamboo canes in the pots and tie the tops of them to the top of the greenhouse.  However the author clearly did not have a greenhouse quite as small as mine with virtually no supports apart from a bit of the frame that has come loose and is hanging from the ceiling, so there is now an elaborate threadwork of twine connecting my canes to this loose piece of metal.

    The potatoes had not just chitted but were attempting to escape from the shed, so both first and second earlies are now in, with only the maincrops to go (my mother in law did manage to locate some Shetland blacks in the end).  This means I will have three beds taken up with potatoes and will have to forget my annual dream of planting an asparagus bed.  So this summer we’ll be putting aside the pasta and rice and rediscovering the joys of the potato.  After the digging I have done this week, if my girls so much as mention not liking them there may be some flying around the kitchen.

     

    Lettuce and spinach

    At least all this activity seems to have had an effect on the kids.  I caught my eight year old with my bag of seeds sowing various varieties indiscriminately all over her bed.  It will be interesting to see what comes up, and how well it does, and if nothing else will be an interesting experiment in companion planting!

  • Shoestring veg growing

    Well, it’s been a while.  But frankly, who gardens in February?  A combination of a punishing work schedule plus freezing temperatures have made it less than inviting to step outside in the last few weeks.  Instead, I’ve been staying inside with a cup of tea and one of the many gardening catalogues that come through my door at this time of year, trying to find things to buy.

    The problem is, even when I actively want to buy something, I am inherently frugal.  And it is true that there is a plethora of unnecessary items you could waste your money on when it comes to veg gardening, especially given that most of what you put in the garden will be obliterated by our climate in a few years.

    With more people turning to veg growing as a way of cutting down on food bills, it’s easy to be enticed by the marketing material that would have you believe it can’t be done without investing in hundreds of pounds worth of equipment.  In fact, there’s very little you actually need to start a garden plot, so with this in mind, here’s my guide to how to garden on a shoestring:

    Tools you may actually need:

    A small hand fork and trowel - the reason for this will be obvious if you’ve ever set foot in a garden.  If not, trust me, it will become clear.

    A large fork – even if you use the no dig technique you’ll need it for digging up tatties at least

    A large spade – for digging planting trenches and moving compost

    A hoe – hoeing little and often during dry periods keeps the weeds and workload down, but if you only have tiny beds with not much space between plants, you might be better with a hand held one.

    Note – most gardening books will tell you to invest in expensive, sturdy tools.  However I’ve found that if you use them at all you are quite likely to leave them out in the rain, so cheap ones are just as good.

     

    Loo roll pea tubes

    Things you might need if you grow certain veg

    Fleece and netting – if you plan to protect anything – which is a good idea for cabbages, brocolli, carrots and strawberries at least.  There is no need to buy expensive enviromesh, fleece is cheap and does just as well.

    Twine – for tying things – you can also use plastic ties, but it’s harder to cut and I don’t find it any more sturdy.

    A water butt – it’s not exactly essential, but if like me your plot is far from the house you’ll struggle without one.  Plus rainwater is best for plants, especially acid loving ones like blueberries, and apparently it’s better for the environment not to waste water (though it seems to me the sky does it most days in Scotland)

    There’s no need to waste your money on –

    Gardening gloves – I keep buying these and then taking them off as I can’t seem to do anything with them on.  A better investment would be a nail brush.  The only time gardening gloves are handy is for dealing with thorny and stinging things – so buy the thick plastic ones that go right up your arms, and save them for these jobs.  Or just wear thick rubber gloves.

    Seed trays – I’m sure that the seed trays they sell in the shops have some special thermal properties that the plastic containers you get in the supermarket don’t, but considering the length of time your seedlings will be in them does it really matter? You could always try painting them black, or wrapping them in bubble wrap.  The containers for tomatoes and raspberries are great as the lid acts as its own fitted cloche.

    Plastic Pots – You get them free every time you buy a plant, you are bound to have neighbours who want to get rid of some, and just look around your kitchen – old tins – yoghurt pots etc can all be used.

    Root trainers – For peas and sweet peas I always use toilet and kitchen roll tubes.  They take slightly longer to break down than peat pots but the difference is negligible.

    Specialist Watering devices – make a hole in a bottle top, cut the bottom off, fill with water, stick into the soil near the roots of the plant for a gradual release of water – ideal when you are going on holiday

    Cloches – The ones you can buy are fine if you have one beautiful specimen plant to protect, but are you going to live on one cabbage for a year?  Cut coke and lemonade bottles in half, plus glasses, or use old greenhouse panes on top of pots and window boxes (watch out for broken bits).  You can cover pots with clingfilm, beds with bubble wrap and use the tops of plastic supermarket packaging (again).  Or just wait til it gets warmer.

    Pegs – I have some of these as they can be handy, but you can also use big stones or recycled tent pegs.

    Seed labels – pieces of card are fine – they’ll biodegrade but you only need them long enough until you recognise the plant – unless you are putting them outside, but my experience is even the plastic ones don’t last long outdoors before they snap or the writing fades

    Fruit cages – You can use bamboo canes tied with twine – though if I feel flush I might try build-a-balls this year for less fuss.  If so, I’ll report back on whether they’re worth the money.

    Bamboo canes – even these are not always necessary.  In fact for peas I find them next to useless, as the tendrils of the peas don’t catch on to them.  I use last year’s raspberry canes or buddhelia prunings instead.  Make sure they are dried or they can sometimes root.   This year I’m going to try chicken wire held up by a bamboo frame.

    Plastic compost bins – I’ve had much better compost from my old wooden bins which are just an open box with no cover.  A heap also does just as well.  You can surround it with fencing panels if you don’t like the way it looks (and smells).  The important things to remember are heat, moisture and ventilation.  It’s also much easier to turn a traditional heap than the material in a plastic bin.

    Heated propagator – Last year I left mine out in the rain (a common theme of mine) and had to cut the wire off it.  This year I’ve just used it as a tray.  I have a sunny windowsill, and saw no difference in the progress of my seedlings.  If anything they’ve done better due to not drying out as quickly.  If you don’t have a sunny windowsill, however, you might still need one.

    No doubt I’ll think of more as the year goes on but the basic principle is this.  Before you buy anything, look at what you’ve already got.  The more money you save the more you can spend on things that really matter.  A couple of years ago, after getting sick of having to walk over our veg bed all the time, I invested in link-a-bord raised beds, and have been happy with them ever since.  But if you’re going to splash out on something like that, make it a long term investment.  Most veg can be grown quite happily in a combination of flower borders and pots.

    If you do go in for the recycling theme, bear in mind your plot might at first look more like a rubbish tip than a kitchen garden dream.  Don’t stress over it.  You’re growing food, not posing for a place in Country Living.  If we all do it enough it might start trending.  Anyway, once the veg has begun to grow it will hide all the unsightly refuse and look beautiful in its own right.

  • Potato Day!

    My meagre patch of snowdrops is out at last and it’s a countdown to see how long they’ll stay there before they get flattened by rain or children, but snowdrops, along with the first dead baby birds brought home by the cat, are the not always pleasant reminders that spring is supposedly just around the corner.

    Of course since it’s Scotland, and since I’ve lived here this past thirty five years, I should know that spring doesn’t really begin here until May, but where would we be without hope?

    One of the other harbingers of spring for me, and (possibly sadly) one of the most exciting events in my spring calendar, is potato day in Kelso.

    Run by Borders Organic Gardeners, this event is a hilarious scramble of silver heads rustling paper bags, fighting to get to the most prized seed spuds with the same violence of old ladies at bus stops, who are clearly at the front of the queue but are convinced everyone else is about to jump in front of them.

    The number of different varieties, if you can see them through the stampede, is astounding, and I spend ages flicking through the catalogue usually to buy the same pink fir apples I buy every year.  Pink fir apples are delicious, nutty little tubers , with an alien like knobbly appearance.  They are, however, a bugger to clean, because the dirt collects in all the nooks and crannies, so this year I’m opting for a rounder potato.  I’ve grown Nicola and Lady Christi in the past years, both of which did extremely well and were nice, neat, round, easy to clean shapes.

     

    Pink Fir Apples

    I’m also going to try a purple variety.  A few years ago in Orkney my mother in law grew Shetland Blacks, and the flavour was amazing.  I’ve not come across them again, so if anyone knows where to get hold of them please let me know!

    In Gardener’s World magazine this month Alan Titchmarsh has some good tips on veg growing for people who think they don’t have the time or space.  One of the things he says, however, I have to disagree with.  To save money, he says, avoid crops like potatoes and onions in favour of things that cost more in the shops.  Usually I do avoid cheaper veg, especially if it’s tricky to grow, but potatoes are great for opening up the soil without digging (more labour saving for busy people).  More importantly having both onions and potatoes in your garden at all times means you can knock up a hearty soup from whatever other veg happens to be in season.  This has often saved me from making a trip to the supermarket in the past, saving on both petrol costs and carbon guilt.

    I’m not sure how the state of my carbon guilt will be after the 200 mile round trip to Kelso, however.  Why isn’t there a potato day in Fife?  Or is there and I’ve just missed it?  I googled and found some kind of event in Cupar in July, which seems a bit late in the year.  When I am queen I will make potato days compulsory for every region.  In the meantime I’ll have to see it as a holiday and a day out for the kids (I know – poor kids) as the low cost of the potatoes (only 13p a tuber) is more than negated by the cost of petrol!

    Potato Day is on Sunday 6 March 2011, from 11am to 2.30pm, at the Borders Union Showground in Kelso, and includes food, stalls selling seeds and onion sets, as well as over 100 different varieties of seed potato.

  • Growing without the backache (or not?)

    I can’t say I was entirely looking forward to this week’s task, effectively opening up bug infested compost heaps and spreading muck over the beds, but there is something strangely satisfying about a new, thick, cakey layer of crumbly soil spread over previously scraggy, compacted looking beds.

    Not that my compost is the kind of ‘black gold’ you see on websites and in gardening magazines. Despite leaving the stuff for months and turning it regularly (I can see it’s hot from the steam that comes out when I turn it) I get maybe a potful of the black stuff from the very bottom, and the rest is a of twiggy copper substance with the occasional clump of roots and earth, and the odd bit of plastic bag (how do they get in there?). But I spread it over the beds anyway, and the twigs seem to mulch down in the end. I know there is a trick to making good compost, to do with dividing out the greens and the browns and adding them in equal amounts, but who has time and space to do that? I just pile it all on and hope the balance will be something like equal.

    But all that turning the earth, shovelling it onto wheelbarrows and then onto the beds themselves, coupled with digging the beds, is hard on the back. I have a slightly dodgy back after falling down a set of stone stairs when I was pregnant (not to be advised) and tend to develop a worrying inability to move a day after tackling these kinds of jobs.

    So it was with great excitement (or at least a small amount of excitement) that I read recently about the no dig technique – the idea that by not turning the soil you are less likely to bring weed seedlings to the surface, and will therefore have less weeds. So in other words, all that digging might not only be not necessary, but might give me more work to do in the long term.

    I’m not one to go blindly after fads. Presumably there’s a reason why people have been turning the soil for centuries, rather than just dumping the compost on top and letting the worms do the work. But if there’s anything in this no dig idea, it sounds like the kind of approach I like.  So this year I’m conducting my own (perhaps not so) scientific experiment. I’ve prepared two beds so far. One of them has been traditionally dug. This is the one for the broad beans, largely because it had potatoes in it last year and if left in the ground they have an irritating habit of becoming weeds, so I wanted to make sure all the tubers were removed. The other, the one for the salad, which contained peas last year, I have left undug. Instead I removed perennial weeds by hand and spread a thick layer of muck over the top. That’s all. They both look lovely and brown and weed free at the moment, but we’ll see how they look in a few months’ time.

    So lots more days of muck spreading in store, but not so much digging as I thought. And it does help to see the signs of life beginning to emerge. Some Kale plants I put in last year and which never had a chance to develop are miraculously still alive in their bottle cloches after having been buried under a foot of snow for much of the winter. The leeks are alive too, albeit they haven’t grown much, and my sprouting broccoli is beginning to sprout. I might even manage a meal from the garden before the month is out.