Potatoes: a whole new language

A lot of gardeners have Easter marked as the time to start planting their potatoes. I guess it’s the prospect of a long weekend in the garden or on the allotment that turns our thoughts to planting spuds.

But before you start digging, do you know your ‘first earlies’ from your ‘maincrops’? Have you heard of ‘indeterminates’ and ‘determinates’? What are ‘seed potatoes’ and do you need to ‘chit’ them? Yes, the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) comes with a language all of its own.

Freshly harvested potatoes

Seed potatoes

Seed potatoes are potatoes from last year’s harvest that you grow this year’s potatoes from. It’s fine to use a few tubers from your previous crop if they have stored well over winter and look healthy. However, using potatoes from your own crops year after year runs the risk of carrying over any disease that might be present. With that in mind, it is also important not to grow potatoes in the same soil each year, as pests and diseases are likely to build up.

In general, it’s best to use a fresh stock of seed potatoes from a garden centre or online catalogue. They will be virus free and guaranteed to give you a tasty, disease-free crop. There will also be plenty of varieties to choose from.

Potatoes chitting on a window sill
Seed potatoes guaranteed to be virus free

Although it is possible to grow potatoes from store-bought eating potatoes, you won’t get the same disease-free guarantee. If you decide to try this, make sure you buy organic as some eating potatoes are treated with a chemical that prevents sprouting.

First earlies, second earlies and maincrop potatoes

These terms simply relate to the time when you plant and harvest your potatoes. First and second earlies (new potatoes) are often planted at the same time, with second earlies being ready for harvesting a few weeks later than first earlies. Maincrop potatoes are generally planted a bit later, take longer to grow and are harvested later in the year.

When to plant potatoes

There is no hard and fast rule for when you should plant potatoes. It will depend on the temperatures in your region. Later planting (up to a couple of weeks before your last frosts) simply means later harvests, so don’t panic if you can’t start planting over the Easter weekend! As a very general guide…

First earlies can be planted around the end of March/early April for harvesting 10–12 weeks later in June/July. They are the earliest to crop, hence the name ‘first early’. Popular varieties of first early potatoes include:

  • Arran Pilot
  • Duke of York
  • Foremost
  • Orla
  • Pentland Javelin
  • Rocket
  • Sharpes Express
  • Swift

Second earlies can be planted in mid-April for harvests 14–16 weeks later from July onwards. Popular varieties of second early potatoes include:

  • Charlotte
  • Estima
  • Jazzy
  • Kestrel
  • Maris Peer
  • Ratte

Both first and second earlies tend to be small and flavoursome new potatoes, ideal for boiling and steaming. They are best eaten soon after harvest.

Main crop potatoes can be planted in mid- to late-April for harvesting after 15–20 weeks from late August onwards. Popular main crop varieties include:

  • Cara
  • Desiree
  • King Edward
  • Maris Piper
  • Navan
  • Pink Fir Apple

Maincrop potatoes tend to be bigger than first and second earlies and can be baked, roasted or fried. They also store well over winter.


Chitting is the process of forcing seed potatoes to start sprouting a few weeks before they are planted out (see How to chit potatoes). Left in a cool dry place in the light, the ‘eyes’ of seed potatoes produce stubby sprouts called ‘stolons’. When planted below ground, the stolons grow upwards to create the new potato plant.

Chitted potatoes, ready to plant
Chitted and ready to plant

Chitting is a good way of getting early varieties off to a head start so that they get growing quickly when they are planted, but it isn’t essential.

Indeterminate versus determinate potatoes

I only discovered these terms a few weeks ago and they will completely change the way I grow my potatoes this year, as indeterminate and determinate potatoes have different growth habits.

Indeterminate potatoes produce their crop at intervals along the growing stem in multiple layers. As the plant grows up you need to keep covering the stem (‘earthing up’) so that the layers of potatoes remain underground. You need vertical space for this type of potato and they take longer to grow than determinate varieties. Most (but not all) maincrop potatoes are indeterminate.

Determinate potatoes grow in a single layer just below the seed potato in the top layer of soil. They will benefit from a layer of mulch as they grow to ensure any tubers that break through the surface are protected from the light. The plants do not grow very tall and flower earlier than indeterminate varieties. Most (but not all) early varieties are determinate.

Growing potatoes in containers

With limited veg-growing space, I’ve always grown my potatoes in sacks. For years I’ve been planting 2 or 3 potatoes deep in each sack and ‘earthing up’ around the stems as they grow, thinking that they are growing layers of potatoes. But it turns out that most of the varieties I’ve been growing are ‘determinate’ and have therefore been growing in a single layer. So, this year, I will still plant them in sacks, but I will plant 2 seed potatoes in the bottom third of the sack, then another 2 in the next third. In theory, I should get double the harvest in the same space. Result!

Potato sacks in leaf
Sacks of potatoes

Whatever type or variety of potato you decide to grow, and whether you chit or not, there is nothing more satisfying than harvesting flavoursome home-grown potatoes.

Homegrown Charlotte potatoes
Homegrown Charlotte potatoes

So let me know what you’re growing this year and any potato-growing tips you want to share.

How to prune autumn-fruiting raspberries

Despite the appalling weather, I managed to get out in the garden this week for one of my favourite 15-minute gardening tasks – chopping my Autumn Bliss autumn-fruiting raspberries down to the ground.

It’s hard to imagine that February is the perfect time of year for many gardening tasks, but this is definitely one of them. The plants are dormant at the moment, so a hard prune back to the ground during cold weather won’t damage them. Within a few weeks though they will be ready to shoot back into action, so now is the time to give them the chop.

Simply chop!

Autumn-fruiting raspberries are ‘primocanes’, which means they produce fruit on new wood. I have six Autumn bliss raspberry plants in a small bed near the bottom of the garden. When in leaf they provide a perfect screen in front of the shed.

All you need to do at this time of year is remove last year’s old growth.

Raspberry canes ready for cutting down
Last year’s autumn raspberry canes

Cut the old canes as close to the ground as you can, making sure your secateurs are sharp for a clean cut.

Chop autumn raspberries canes to the ground
Chop autumn raspberries canes to the ground

Bonus leftovers

And the great thing is that the old raspberry canes can be put to use in the rest of the garden. I trim off the twiggy side branches and flimsier tips to make sturdy stakes that I then use to prop up my perennials.

Raspberry cane stakes
Raspberry cane stakes

And the twiggy bits can be shredded and used as a mulch, so nothing goes to waste.

Twigs for shredding
Twigs for shredding

Autumn- vs summer-fruiting raspberries

Summer-fruiting raspberries are slightly more complicated in that they are ‘floricanes’, which means they fruit on the previous year’s wood. The old canes need to be removed after they have fruited to encourage new growth, as that’s what next year’s raspberries grow on.

Autumn harvest

Unlike their summer counterparts, autumn-fruiting raspberries are pretty much self-supporting, although I find they need a bit of string around them to stop them flopping forward over the bed. They start to ripen in late summer and, from just six plants, I get a good harvest that usually lasts all the way into October.

Autumn raspberries
Harvest the raspberries from late summer to first frosts

So, if you are new to raspberry growing, I highly recommend giving autumn-fruiting raspberries a go. It couldn’t be simpler.

Ready, steady sow!

I’ve finally got going with my March indoor sowings, starting as always with three varieties of tomato – Moneymaker, Red Cherry and Maskotka.

The seeds were big enough to handle individually, so this year I started them in small individual pots, in an attempt to reduce the amount of pricking out I need to do (my least favourite of all gardening jobs).

Tomato seeds
Tomato seeds are big enough to handle individually

Germination is always more successful than I expect and I find it hard to discard healthy seedlings, so I usually end up with far too many plants. Last year, I struggled to give them all away (I think everyone was growing their own tomatoes last year!). So, this year I have planted two seeds per pot and reduced the number of seeds I’ve sown.

Two seeds per pot
Two seeds per pot

Aubergines (Black Beauty), chillis and several varieties of lettuce (Cosmic, Little Gem and Iceberg) swiftly followed.

Indoor sowings
Indoor sowings of tomatoes, aubergines, chillis and lettuce

It’s too cold to start any outdoor sowings (of things I like to eat), so our old decorating table will soon be straining under the weight of pots, and my kitchen will become a makeshift greenhouse for the next few months.

I’m always amazed that those tiny seeds can produce such amazing results.

Growing aubergines
Last year’s aubergines

Next on the list are courgettes and leeks, plus Marigolds, Busy Lizzies and Black-eyed Susan. What are you sowing?

Courgette crisis

Today I came downstairs to the kitchen to find a note from my husband (we communicate by note during the week!). It read: “Crisis! Courgette and broccoli shortage across Europe. Oh Noooo …!”

Courgette crisis note

A typical love note from my husband

Okay, so I could feel the sarcasm oozing off the page, as he’s not a huge fan of courgettes, or broccoli for that matter, despite my best efforts to force feed him both throughout the year, but it made me curious. Sure enough, those were the headlines. First Brexit, then Trump and now Courgette-gate. Yes, the UK is in the grip of a courgette shortage. Hold the front page!

Apparently, cold wet weather has affected crops in Spain and prices of the lovely veggies are soaring, along with peppers, tomatoes and broccoli. And shoppers appear to be panicking about it.

What a load of tosh

This total over-reaction is indicative of a widespread attitude about the availability of fresh produce, but I suppose it’s not surprising given the supermarkets’ obsession with stocking every possible vegetable in every month of the year. It’s no wonder people have lost track of what’s in season, and what’s not.

Courgette crisis

I had a glut of courgettes last August … because that’s when they were growing!

My rather condescending advice to anyone worrying about their inability to make courgetti right now, is not to stress about it and tuck into some carrots, cabbages or parsnips instead. They’ve probably been grown a little closer to home!

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

Tuck into your winter cabbages instead

And as for my husband, who is undoubtedly hoping that this dearth of courgettes will last well into 2017, it’s not the good news story he thinks it is. I’m ordering my seeds this month, and I’ll be sure to stock up on courgettes!



Beat the glut: 2 great beetroot recipes

Beetroot is really easy to grow. No matter how new you are to veg growing, it’s a sure thing. But then what do you do with all those beets?

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

Fresh from the veg plot: beetroot glut

My personal favourite is roasted beetroot and goat cheese salad, but as the autumn nights start to draw in, here are two easy peasy ways to get creative with your beetroot glut.

Spiced sweet and sour pickled beetroot

Thank you to my neighbour, Alison, for putting me on to this one. This light pickle is sweet and rich, and is the perfect accompaniment to all sorts of foods (fish, cold meats, cheeses, salad …).

1 kg raw beetroot
200g caster sugar
300mL white wine vinegar
200mL cold water
2 star anise
3 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Trim the leaves and most of the stalks off the beetroot, leaving a stump of stalk on each.

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wash and trim your beetroot before cooking

Wrap each beetroot in tinfoil and place on a baking tray. Roast for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the point of a sharp knife inserts easily into the beet. Leave to cool.

Peel the beets (and get very stained hands), and chop them into large bite-size pieces. Pack the chunks into sterilized jars.

Chop your oooked beetroot into chunks

Chop your cooked beetroot into chunks

For the pickling juice, tip the sugar, white wine vinegar, water, spices and bay leaves into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Then simmer gently, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved, for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar.

Carefully pour the spiced vinegar over the beetroot in the jars (you might have a bit left over). Leave the pickle to cool uncovered, then pour the olive oil over the top and seal the jars.

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Et voila! Pickled beetroot. Simples!

Officially you are only supposed to keep this in the fridge for up to a month, but mine lasted at least 2 months last year with no problems. And as a bonus, when we’d eaten all the beetroot, I mixed the leftover pickling juice with a little olive oil for a fantastic vinaigrette salad dressing.

Beetroot brownies

Forget carrot cake this autumn, try this instead. You won’t regret it.

500g raw beetroot
100g unsalted butter
200g bar plain chocolate (70% cocoa)
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g caster sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
25g cocoa powder

Cook and chop the beetroot as per the recipe above. Chop the chocolate and butter up roughly and blend with the warm chopped beets in a food processor. The chocolate and butter will melt as you blend.

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Blend the beets, butter and chocolate until it is smooth red and velvety

Beat the sugar and eggs together in a large bowl until thick, pale and foamy. Spoon the beetroot mixture into the bowl (it doesn’t look pretty at this stage, but stay with it!), then use a large metal spoon to fold it in. Try to keep as much air in the mixture as you can.

Gently fold in the sifted flour and cocoa powder next, until you have a smooth batter. Pour the mixture into a pre-lined 20cm x 30cm tray bake or roasting tin and bake for 25 minutes or until it has risen all over with a small quiver under the centre of the crust when you shake the pan.

Cool in the tin, then cut into squares.

Beetroot brownies


Let me know what you think, and I’d love to know your favourite beetroot recipes too. I’m sure I’ll have another glut to deal with next year.

Hanging tomatoes

I’m still cramming the vegetables and annuals into the garden. As I haven’t got a greenhouse, and I’m rapidly running out of space – and pots – on the patio, some of the tomatoes have gone into hanging baskets.

There are plenty of bush-type varieties with shallow root systems that do well in hanging baskets. I’m trying Tumbling Tom (yellow) and Tiny Tim (red), one plant per basket, hung south facing at the back of the house.

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

Yellow Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging basket

The baskets are pre-lined so I haven’t had to faff around with liners or moss. I put a small plastic saucer and several used tea bags at the bottom of each basket to help retain water, and firmed each tomato plant in with plenty of all-round garden compost and a few growmore granules.

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

A small saucer and used tea bags, placed at the bottom of the basket to help retain water

I haven’t bothered with water-retaining granules, as there are no holes in the liner so the water shouldn’t drain away too quickly.

Because of the habit of these trailing plants, they require very little maintenance, so I won’t need to do anything else now, other than regular watering, plus weekly feeding when the tomatoes start to develop.

Tumbling Tom tomato planted in hanging basket

Now we wait …

Spud update

Last time I mentioned the potatoes, they were merrily chitting on a bedroom window sill.

Chitted potatoes, ready to plant

Chitted and ready to plant

A lot has happened since then. First, I had to decide where to put them. If, like me, you are pretty limited on space, the perfect solution is to plant in sacks or containers. I’ve just about managed to squeeze mine in behind the raised vegetable beds.

A chorus line of potato sacks

A chorus line of potato sacks

I filled my sacks about a third full of compost, along with some ‘potato fertilizer’, and placed the chitted potatoes on the top (about 5 per sack), then covered them with more compost and watered them well.

Five seed potatoes per sack

Five seed potatoes per sack

Since then, I’ve pretty much left them to their own devices, and they have done their thing extremely quietly and quickly. Before I knew it (and partly because I’d been away) the leaves were poking out of the tops of the sacks.

Potato sacks in leaf

Sackfuls of … leaves

Not what I had intended! The plan had been to gradually earth up soil around the stems as they grew. Instead, I have now had to shovel a load more compost into the bags and hope I haven’t got a potato disaster on my hands.

So now it’s just a waiting game. I shall keep them damp (not wet!) and await the flowers; then we’ll see if there’s anything to harvest.

Seedy decisions

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to choose and buy your vegetable seeds for the year ahead (flowers too, of course, but I’m focusing on the veggies today). For me, that means dusting down the old biscuit tin in the shed containing the seed packets from last year and checking the sow-by dates, taking stock of what I’ve got left and then making the tricky decision of what to grow this year. I say ‘tricky’ because I tend to want to grow pretty much everything, but I don’t have the room. Having said that, nearly all vegetables can be grown in pots (sweetcorn and Jerusalem artichokes excepted) … and I can always buy another pot!

Vegetable seed packets

My ‘leftover’ vegetable seeds, still within their sow-by dates for 2015

What to grow

(1) Grow what you like to eat! It might sound daft, but you’ll be surprised how many people grow things they don’t really like. I made this mistake with a crop of Swiss Chard a couple of years ago. It grew well (so I ended up with stacks of it), and it looked pretty, but I didn’t really like the taste of it that much and most of the leaves ended up in the compost.

(2) Consider the economics. If you don’t have a massive plot, be money-wise. Some vegetables are simply cheaper to buy and no amount of gardening savvy will produce a cost-saving benefit. So grow high-value vegetables and buy the cheap ones. I’m always amazed at how much a bag of mixed salad leaves costs in the supermarket. It’s such a good feeling to see them growing rampant in pots on my patio for a fraction of the price. French beans are another money saver in our house.

(3) Make some ‘easy-grow’ choices, particularly if you are new to vegetable growing (my ‘sure things’ are baby carrots and beetroot). That way, if your parsnips don’t germinate or the caterpillars eat all your cabbages you’ll still be pulling up some fresh veg with a smug smile and won’t be completely despondent at the end of the season.

(4) Check the growing times. If you don’t want to wait until Christmas to harvest your brussel sprouts, or next year for your purple sprouting broccoli, then choose vegetables that will provide ‘instant’ gratification. Lettuce, radishes, baby carrots and courgettes are all good options.

(5) Match your veg to your garden. Think about where you will be growing the vegetables. For example, if you have heavy clay soil (like me), long-rooted carrots or parsnips will struggle, so choose the stumpier varieties or grow them in pots in lighter compost. If your garden is shady, avoid growing sun lovers like tomatoes and beetroot; grow leafy veg instead. If you don’t have a lot of room, try dwarf varieties (I was over the moon with my dwarf runner beans last year) or ‘mini veg’ that you can grow in closer proximity to each other.

(6) Try something different. It’s quite exciting to grow something that you haven’t eaten before, or that you’re unlikely to find in the shops. Last year I grew some baby squash – and they were delicious!

Get organized

It’s a good idea to make a list of what you’ve got, what you need to buy, and where you’re going to grow it.

Vegetable seed planner

My vegetable seed plan for 2015

Buying seed

There are lots of seed suppliers out there. To avoid getting overwhelmed by it all, my advice is to check out the information from 2 or 3 reputable ones (you don’t want dud seeds!) before making your selection. One of winter’s great pleasures is kicking back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, perusing your seed catalogues or information online, sending your order off and then fantasizing about how your garden will look in the summer, bursting with your very own supply of fresh healthy veg.

I’d love to hear what you’re planning to grow this year. And all tips welcome! Please leave a comment below.

Green aromatherapy

Given the mild weather at the moment (for December!), the tidying and mulching continues. This weekend’s attention to the herb bed had added benefits, as the uplifting scents that wafted from my small patch of overgrown culinary herbs were nothing short of sensational.

Herb bed

The herb bed before the big clear up

After 15 minutes of chopping and digging I had created a unique energizing fragrance of rosemary, sage and mint, with subtle hints of thyme and fennel, all then blown away by the heady aroma of lavender.

Tidied herb bed

The herb bed: chopped, tidied and mulched

Aromatic plants are incredibly versatile. Inhaling their intoxicating scent is one of life’s simple pleasures – I can rarely resist a ‘scratch and sniff’ as I pass – so why not experiment with some homemade pot pourri? Each also has its place in the kitchen of course: how much better are new potatoes when embellished with a spring of mint, or lamb roasted with rosemary?!

But have you thought what other uses these herbs might have? Here are a few of my suggestions, but I’d love to hear yours so that I can make more of my herb bed next year. Please leave a comment below.

  • Peppermint: pour hot water onto a handful of peppermint leaves, brew for 5 minutes and add brown sugar or honey to taste. Mint tea can aid digestion.
  • Rosemary: add a few sprigs of rosemary to your bath water for a lovely aromatic soak, or strip the leaves and toss the woody stems onto an open fire for a wonderful pine-scented perfume. Rosemary is also a moth repellent, so you could try hanging some sachets of rosemary leaves in the wardrobe (better than the smell of moth balls!).
  • Basil: plant in pots near your doors to help keep flies out of the house. (Flies don’t like lavender or mint either.)
  • Lavender: rub the fresh flowers directly onto your temples or forehead (avoiding the eyes!) to ease a headache, or before you go to bed for a good night’s sleep.




From pot to plate

The vegetable patch is still providing some tasty morsels even in late November.

Given the dreary weather yesterday, a roast lamb dinner was just the thing to lift the spirits.

So, I dug up baby carrots and parsnips from their pots…

November carrots from a potNovember parsnips from a pot… and searched deep into the last of my potato sacks for the remaining main crop potatoes (Cara variety – white skinned, with a creamy flesh and firm texture).

November potatoes, Cara variety, from a sack

… Added some shop-bought cabbage (on the ‘to grow’ list for next year), along with the lamb and gravy … and voila! Delicious!

Sunday dinner

Sunday dinner with veggies from the garden