You say potato


potatoes; Caryford Hall; Somerset; Pennard Plants; gardening; allotments

Potato Day 2018

It’s a mistake to say that nothing of interest in the gardening world happens in January.  By the end of the month the days are getting noticeably longer, the green shoots spring bulbs are already emerging and, in this neck of the woods at least, gardeners have Potato Day to look forward to.

Last year’s PD was a frugal affair – by dint of not attending (see earlier post), I got away with spending a tenner.  Bargain! This year, we arbitrarily set the budget at £12 and had even, uncharactisterically, prepared a LIST, to avoid repetition, deviation and hesitation.  Needless to say that pretty much went out of the window on arrival, and we (that is to say, I) ended up spending around £33.But despite the infectious buying mood in Caryford Hall,  we didn’t go too mad and the £12 budget was probably unrealistic in the first place.  We got everything on the list but bought more potato varieties than I had anticipated  -  it’s rude not to when confronted by the panoply of varieties offered by the estimable Pennard Plants.

potato day; instructions; Caryford Hall; Pennard Plants

Potato Day: the rules of engagement

Ratte were on my hit list – sold out last time – and we got 10 tubers, along with 6 International Kidney (love the name, adding just a  hint of  Austin Powers to the allotment) and 5 Pink Fir Apples.  Desiree did well for us last year on the plot, and so I added 5 of these to the basket too.  We also went for 4 x Kerr’s Pink, and 5 x Maris Piper. A total of 35 tubers.  About 6 or 7 rows worth on our allotment, and hopefully a selection that will give us a long season (Int Kid waxy 1st early; Ratte waxy early main; Maris Piper floury early main; Desiree waxy early main, Kerr’s Pink floury late main;  Pink Fir Apples waxy late main).

Ratte potatoes; potato day; allotment; vegetables

A Ratte! A Ratte!

No banana shallots this year so I’ll source these elsewhere and I resisted the garlic – an attempt at economy. We’ll plant some of last year’s bulbs instead, and see how they do.  I went a bit mad on garlic last year and planted so much that we should have enough to see us through until this year’s harvest. I did get onions, resisting the multi-colour mix to opt for a scoop each of Bamberger Long and Piroska Red (an improved Red Baron variety).

vegetable seeds; Pennard Plants; potato day; allotment;

Gone to seed

Despite having an overflowing box of vegetable seeds at home, it was impossible to resist buying a few packets.  A trio of brightly coloured beetroot (Chioggia Bullseye, Detroit Golden Round, Detroit Crimson Red), and a reputedly easy to grow outdoors cucumber (Burpless short).  I restocked with a packet of Pennard’s Blue Solaise leeks;  they’ve  done well for us this season on the allotment (we’re still pulling them and they are delicious).  Although I usually swear by  Sungold tomatoes, I’d thought we’d try something different this year, namely the exotic (and slightly sinister) sounding Black Russian, and Brandysweet Plum Grape.

At £2.50 a packet, dahlias were impossible to pass over.  And as good things come in threes, we went for:  Gerry Hoek, Bishop of Llandaff, Bishop of Dover.  But I’ll still be placing that order with Sarah Raven …




Bleak midwinter

Popped down to the allotment today, for the first time in ages, this year even.  As the picture below shows, it was a bleak scene.  Last night’s snow/sleet had faded but the whole place gave the impression of hunkering down beneath a lowering January sky. The swathes of black weed surpressing plastic that so many potholders have gone in for (myself included) merely added to the overall darkness of the scene. Despite the windy weather we’ve been having recently, ours seems to have stayed in place pretty well, pinned down by some of the old bricks we inherited on the plot.

Given the chilling wind and sodden ground I didn’t linger but ahead of this Sunday’s potato day it felt good to be scoping out the plot and thinking about what crops we might want to grow and what will go where this year.  More flowers are on the agenda, and I’ve been eyeing up the Sarah Raven catalogue with a view to adding some more unusual dahlia varieties to our existing stock.  But I’ll hold off ordering until after Sunday, as who knows what treasures await in the village hall courtesy of Pennard Plants?

Before scuttling back home to the warmth, I dug up some leeks (Blue Solaise, seeds from Pennard Plants) and lightly pruned the two apple trees. The Christmas Pippin we planted last year is looking very happy and I rather regret not planting it in the home garden.  The garlic that went in before Christmas is already peeking its shoots above the soil, and the currant bushes are already fat with buds.  The promise of new growth.  The three non-producing gooseberry bushes are on borrowed time, however, and even as I plot their demise, I’m thinking about what might usefully take their place.  A new strawberry bed perhaps?

winter allotment

January on the Allotment

A Window Box Salad Bar

Returning home from Wendy Shillam’s inspiring ‘Leaf Lore’ workshop (see previous post), I lost no time in sowing some leaf seeds in my equivalent of the Rooftop Vegplot – a far from picturesque  container  beneath my kitchen window.  I’m hoping this will prove to be both slug proof and cat proof!  The seeds were an improvised mix of cut and come again varieties such as Salad Bowl, mizuna and rocket and I must say I’m impressed with the speed at which they’ve come up in the world.  I’m wary of cropping them too soon, although according to Wendy they are already at the super-nutritious ‘micro veg’ stage.  I’ll give it another three weeks and hope to be able to tuck into a good homegrown salad then.


lettuce container

Window box salad bar

Leaf Lore on the Rooftop Vegplot

Salad days are here again and with this in mind my visit to Wendy Shillam’s city potager for a workshop on leaf growing could not have been better timed. After a disappointing lettuce season last year, I’ve been yearning for delicious homegrown salads and itching to crack open the seed packets and so when Wendy kindly offered me a preview of her “leaf lore” workshop I jumped at the chance to get some hands-on advice to galvinise my growing.


Seed packets

A small selection of seeds to sow!

Wendy (whose garden features in the new edition of the London Garden Book) is a passionate advocate of growing fresh produce no matter how compromised your space is – fresh salad leaves and micro leaves punch above their weight in terms of vitamin and mineral delivery, so it’s worth growing even a few says Wendy. “So much of the food we eat is aged”, she notes, “fresh leaves  have  optimum goodness and are also a great source of fibre.”


Warming the soil

Warming the soil

Wendy’s interest in nutrition comes from a very personal place – diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in recent years, she successfully reversed the condition in just 9 weeks through  changes to her diet, and has subsequently gone on to gain a qualification in nutrition.  For her diabetes busting diet Wendy cut down on the calories but didn’t stint on her fresh fruit and veg intake, of which her homegrown produce was a significant part.

For the workshop Wendy ran through three simple techniques, which could be applied in any garden large or small. First up companion planting. Wendy’s three small raised beds necessarily have to work hard so in a bed that already had two purple artichoke plants and some garlic just poking its head above the soil line Wendy sowed some mesclun. This mix of lettuce, rocket, chervil and endive seeds came from Vilmorin (an historic French seed company distributed in the UK by Thompson and Morgan) and it promised to make a delicious “salade compose”. Even a mixed salad sounds nicer in French! To sow, Wendy just lightly hand forked the soil (which she had recently dressed with some bought compost) and sprinkled the seeds generously around the bed and tickled them in. When the seeds germinate she will use some for micro leaves, and harvest the rest as they get bigger on a cut and come again basis.

Mixed salad leaves, the French way ..

Mixed salad leaves, the French way ..


lettuce seeds

A Handful of Seed

Next we did a bit of cheating, courtesy of a shop bought pot of parsley from Waitrose. Wendy’s a big fan of parsley, using it not only for cooking but as a salad leaf too. It can be slow to germinate so co-opting a ready grown pot is a great way to steal a march on the season. The parsley was densely packed into its little black poly pot and by teasing the roots apart Wendy was able to multiply ‘one’ plant into about 15 individual parsley plants. These she planted in a sunny bed, in soil pre-warmed under a glass cloche, spacing them no more than 10cms apart. “These should last several years” Wendy told me, “and will self seed around too.”


Cheat's parsley

Cheat’s parsley

Dividing the parsley

Dividing the parsley

Parsley potager

Parsley potager

Wendy’s final technique was utterly ingenious, a scaled down version of square foot planting that can only be described as “square inch” gardening. A square of chicken wire was the template for a sowing of red and green Salad Bowl leaves, with Wendy sowing a couple of seeds in every other square in a quincunx pattern (like the five on a dice). This technique is ideal for successional sowing and the wire has the added bonus of keeping slugs at bay, according to Wendy (they don’t like moving over it, apparently). This alone is enough to recommend it to me as my salad crops last year were negligible due to slug damage. As an extra slug deterrent Wendy planted some little viola plug plants around the edge of the wire. The slugs love violas even more than they love baby lettuce leaves, and the viola flowers that do survive are edible, and perfect for prettying up a salad.


Chicken wire templates

Chicken wire templates

No tools required

No tools required

viola plants

Companiable violas

Throughout the summer Wendy and her husband Mike not only enjoy salads from the Rooftop Veg plot but they eat them in situ too, adding to the holistic aspect of the enterprise and topping up their Vitamin D levels at the same time. Wendy’s  illness, and subsequent recovery, confirmed to her why her little veg plot is so much larger than the sum of its parts and why the effort in tending it is worth it. ”Sowing seeds is so easy” says Wendy “it’s really the work of a moment but the rewards are so great”.


Parsley under wraps

Parsley under wraps

I can’t wait to put Wendy’s ideas in to practice – the high predation rate from slugs, rodents, birds and badgers on the allotment means that this year I’m sticking to growing salad crops in my garden where space is much more at a premium and where the Rooftop Vegplot approach should work well. I’m even wondering whether the chicken wire will also deter our neighbour’s cat – the other predator in my home garden. Time will tell – but that’s what this time of year is all about, the growing season stretches ahead of us and optimism as well as Spring is in the air!


French gardening

Inspiration – one of Wendy’s favourite books

Wendy’s Leaf Lore worship runs this Friday, 10th March; for more details of this and Wendy’s other workshops please go to

Wordless Wednesday: Snowy at the Herge Museum

Snowy at the Herge Museum, Brussels

Snowy leads the way

A walk in Edford Wood

One of the highlights of last weekend’s Shepton Snowdrop Festival was a guided walk through Edford Wood to see snowdrops growing in the wild.

Somerset Wildlife Trust Nature reserve sign

Edford Wood


The wood, which is owned by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, is a designated ancient woodland, meaning that it has existed continuously since 1600. It mainly seemed to be made up of coppiced ash, with a sprinkling of other species, including yew. Although the size of our group (about 40 walkers) precluded us seeing much in the way of fauna, the variety of flora that we encountered more than made up for this.

Snowdrop Walk through Edford Woods, Somerset

And they’re off

Following a roughly circular route through the wood we came across bright red Elf Cap fungi, growing like terrestrial coral on fallen branches beside our path.

Red fungi

Elf cap fungi


We also saw colonies (not sure if this is quite the right word) of aconitium, the very poisonous monkshood, their fresh green young leaves standing in vivid contrast to the predominantly brown woodland floor.

Acontinum, Mells River

Wild monkshood, by the Mells River

I also spotted what looked like euphorbia, but I don’t know what variety. It was a bit straggly – garden escapee or a wild (native?) variety?

Euphorbia, Edford Wood

Euphorbia, Edford Wood

Edford Wood is also known a place to see native daffodils and these were already in evidence, with one or two just about poised to open into flower. We were perhaps just a week or two early for the daffodils, so those few that we did see were a bonus. These native daffs are much stockier than the leggy varieties that tend to be used in garden scenarios – but to my mind these shorter stems would be much better suited to a garden (I am not keen on daffs in a border setting, particular in the aftermath of flowering when the foliage looks so messy).

Bedford Wood daffodils, Somerset

Wild daffodils, Edford Wood

As for the snowdrops, these were not quite as numerous as I had anticipated, but there were plenty to see nonetheless and it was indeed lovely to see them in a winter woodland setting. Our route took us along side the meandering Mells river, and this is where the snowdrops looked their best, obligingly arranging themselves in attractive clumps on the river bank. It’s tantalising to wonder if James Allen ever walked these woods in search of rogue snowdrops to breed from; certainly seeing them growing wild made a refreshing contrast to the rather artificially imposed clumps that dot my own garden.

Wild snowdrops, Edford Wood

Wild snowdrops, Edford Wood


The Snowdrops are comin’ home

February can be a pretty bleak month in the garden so a new festival celebrating one of the month’s few horticultural reasons to be cheerful is  good news.  The Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival (, which took place for the first time this weekend (17-19 February), is the brainchild of the town’s horticultural society (

snowdrop stencil motif

Snowdrop stencil on cobbles

The festival’s theme hasn’t been randomly plucked out of the air – Shepton Mallet, the Somerset market town otherwise known as the birthplace of Babycham (, was the home of James Allen, a Victorian amateur horticulturalist who was the first man to hybridise snowdrops.  The festival aims to put Allen and his snowdrops back on the map, with a community minded three-day programme of events ranging from face painting and snowdrop cupcakes to poetry and photography competitions, along with a snowdrop ramble through Edford Wood (see separate post), and a market complete with snowdrops for sale  and snowdrop ID service, provided by Elworthy Cottage Plants (

snowdop stall Elworthy Cottage Plants

Elworthy Cottage Plants stand

As part of the preparations for the festival, members of the Shepton Hort Soc planted up thousands of snowdrop bulbs around the town last autumn, including one mass planting of 30,000 bulbs on the ‘Rock Flock’ roundabout coming into Shepton.  At the weekend, the roundabout’s iconic flock of stone sheep were not only sporting green and white snowdrop festival scarves, they were grazing in a sea of white flowers.  A lovely touch.

planter oil drum stencilled with snowdrops

Oil drum planter



Born in Shepton in 1832, James Allen went on to breed over 100 varieties of snowdrop  from his home on Park Road, and later at nearby Highfield House, and corresponded with the great and good of the horticultural world, including EA Bowles (the Crocus King to Allen’s Snowdrop King).  For all the glacial purity, snowdrops can really be considered the spoils of war – returning Crusaders supposedly first brought Galanthus nivalis bulbs to these shores, with G. plicatus being introduced here centuries later by soldiers coming home from the Crimean War. Allen was the right man at the right time, with added bonus of the right soil – snowdrops thrived in the light soil of his garden at Park House and he was quick to spot any variants that he might breed from.

Park House Shepton Mallet, snowdrop stencil

Snowdrop stencil, Park House

Highfield House, Shepton Mallet

Highfield House, Shepton Mallet

Although Allen’s collection was ultimately destroyed by botrytis and insects, some of his Shepton varieties are still available such as ‘Magnet’ and ‘Merlin’, both of which are AGM.  ’Merlin’ is distinguished by having entirely green inner segments, while ‘Magnet’ has well-proportioned flowers on long pedicils that  shake prettily in the breeze.  ’Magnet’ is  the festival’s logo flower and appears in the charming planters and street stencils that waymarked the ‘Snowdrop’ festival trail through Shepton, from Park House to the cemetery where Allen is buried.

Hightailed House, Shepton Mallet, snowdrops

Snowdrops at Highfield House

Excitingly, the festival might bring to light some of Allen’s lost varieties – certainly that was the hope among those organising the snowdrop ID service (and if Allen was anything like Bowles, he would have given plants to visitors, friends and family and so there may be some original Shepton varieties still blooming locally today). The festival also aims to raise funds to repair and restore the Allen memorial in Shepton Cemetery.


Snowdrop 'Merlin'

Snowdrop Merlin

Judging from the buzz around the market place on the opening day, and the full take up for  Sunday’s snowdrop ramble, Shepton has taken its homegrown festival to heart, with local  local traders getting into the mood too with  snowdrop themed window displays and merchandise.  It’s wonderful to see James Allen’s achievements being remembered and celebrated in his home town – I’m looking forward to next year’s festival already.


Wordless Wednesday: Snowdrops



Potatoes by Proxy

Too much choice can be a difficult thing to handle, at least when it comes to choosing potatoes.  This year my disappointment at not being able to attend our local potato day (, was tempered when I recalled how traumatic I had found last year’s event (the first I had ever attended).  A potato day novice,  I simply had not realised how many wonderful varieties of potatoes would be on offer, nor how many other tempting goodies – from dahlias to day lilies, barerooted fruit trees, soft fruit and old fashioned roses. The heady sight of tub after tub of exciting sounding tubers stretching around the village hall prompted a decision making meltdown and a lot of  dithering – exacerbated by the eager and ever-growing queue building in my wake.


Potato tubers for the allotment

A potato in the bag …

This year it was all much simpler (and more relaxing!).   Friends who were going to the potato day offered to pick  up a few bits and pieces for us.  We left the choice to them (they are keen veg and flower growers so I knew we were in safe hands).  And so it proved.  This year, it turns out, we will be growing Swift (a very early variety) and Sarpo Axona (an AGM award winning, blight resistant main crop).  As I had heard of neither variety I looked them up and they sound just the ticket, Swift is a waxy new potato  with  partial eelworm resistance, while among Sarpo’s virtues is a willingness to produce heavy crops.

Our allotment is prone to blight so this selection could be the perfect potato pincer movement – early cropping Swift might avoid the blight, while Sarpo will hopefully withstand it. I’m looking forward to seeing how they get on – could the key to successful plant selection be delegation? Perhaps this is an idea that could work in the flower garden too – it’s much easier to be decisive in other peoples gardens than in one’s own.

Shallots for the allotment

That’s your lot

I usually grow a few shallots, and our proxy potato buyers selected Longor. Again it’s a variety I’ve not grown before but it’s another goody – an AGM winner that produces long bulbs, which hopefully will be easier to handle than their fiddly round relations.  Our modest haul also included a spring planting variety of garlic, Solent Wight.  I’ve already planted autumn varieties, but  I want to be self-sufficient in garlic this year so this new bulb went in yesterday.

Garlic bulb, spring planting

A garlic bulb moment

Last year I was disappointed by the size of the onion harvest on our allotment (probably something to do with not buying enough sets while suffering from Potato Day paralysis) so this time around, I’ve gone for a bulk buy of onion sets from B&Q.  Tempted by the ‘two for £5′ offer,  I plumped for a  yellow variety Shuron, and a red variety, Karmen. I never seem to get the spacing right with onions – always keen to get decent sized specimens, I tend to plant too far apart.  A big waste of space on the allotment so this year I am going to cram them in more closely and see what happens!

Onion sets, spring planting

All set to go this spring



Wordless Wednesday: Blossom in January

Pink viburnum blossom in January

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’