Update: August 2018

Finally had a little rain which will help the newly planted lettuces settle in nicely today.

I’m so proud.¬†I finally made a homemade version of tinned tomatoes.

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It has been a dream for a long time. I use tinned tomatoes from the shop so often and I was feeling very guilty. It is so easy to make at home, and yet I have never tried it!

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Finally did it today, so I can cross that off my bucket list ūüėČ

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Garden is surviving – too many beans to pick ūüė¶ Did not get a lot achieved this week as I ended up helping my mum fix the road (long story) and getting lost on a dog walk with my siblings and carrying a heavy beagle back to the car (long story).

Aren’t these peppers cute? The orange one is a plant donated by a friend of my mum’s so I had to take a picture for him.

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And look at this giant onion!

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So it is my birthday weekend coming up and to celebrate good old 23, my newest book is available free on Amazon for 3 days, so go check it out.

Happy gardening everybody.

Beetroot

The beetroot is the taproot portion of the beet plant, usually known in North America as the beet, also table beet, garden beet, red beet, or golden beet. It is one of several of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris, grown for their edible taproots and their leaves, beet greens. Beta is the classic Latin name for beets, possibly Celtic origin before becoming bete in Old English in the 1400s. 

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Other than as a food, beets have use as a food colouring and as a medicinal plant.¬†From the Middle Ages,¬†beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Bartolomeo Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic¬†to nullify the effects of “garlic-breath”. Many beet products are made from other¬†Beta vulgaris¬†varieties, particularly sugar beet. During the mid-1800s, beetroot juice was used to colour wine.¬†Beetroot can also be used to make wine nowadays completely, no longer just an addition to the drink made from grapes.

I’ve only ever used ‘Bolthardy’ but I think that it is a brilliant variety. Very rich, dark pinky-red colour, tastes pretty good and lasts in the ground for a long time. I grew too many two years ago and had loads left over in the ground (seeing as only three people in my family liked beetroot then). I thought they would just rot and I would give them to the pigs in winter, but they didn’t. I have been pulling them up two summers on. The outside is as rough as I thought it would be so I discard them, but the inside is still usable. Of course, I would recommend harvesting them in their first season as that will be when they are most delicious!

Another variety I have seen in a vegetable garden lately is candy coloured beetroot – white with pink swirls in it, called ‘Chioggia’. It is very pretty and tastes good too.

To grow beetroot seeds, sow¬†thinly, March-July, where they are to crop, 2.5cm (1″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. Allow 30cm (1′) between rows. I discovered that mine grew so much better when the ground was fed with well rotted manure. Beetroots can be grown in shade, but they seem to prosper more in direct sunlight. Keep them shaded when starting off with horticultural fleece. Regular sowings every three weeks should ensure a continuous supply of young beetroots. Harvest June-October.¬†Harvested roots can be stored in dry sand for winter use.

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Usually the deep purple roots of beetroot are eaten boiled, roasted or raw, either alone or combined with any salad. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe, the beetroot soup borscht is popular. In India, chopped and spiced beetroot is a delicious side dish. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is picked beet egg. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red colour. In Poland and Ukraine,¬†beet is combined with horseradish¬†to form popular cwilka.¬†This is traditionally used with cold cuts and sandwiches or added to a meal consisting of meat and potatoes. In Serbia cvekla¬†is used as a winter salad, seasoned with salt and vinegar, alongside meat dishes. As an addition to horseradish it is also used to produce the “red” variety of chrain, a popular condiment in Eastern European cuisine. A¬†slice of pickled beetroot is combined with other condiments¬†on a beef patty to make an Aussie burger.¬†When beet juice is used, it is most stable in foods with a low water content, such as frozen novelties and fruit fillings.¬†Beatnins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colouring¬†e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste,¬†sauces, desserts, jams¬†and jellies, ice cream, sweets, and breakfast cereals.

Oldest archeological proofs that we used beetroot in ancient times were found on the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands and in Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, which dates from third millennium BC. There are Assyrian texts that say that beetroots were growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC. We can be positive that Mesopotamia knew about beetroots at that time because of these texts. Ancient Greeks cultivated beetroot around 300 BC but didn’t use the roots of the plants, only eating the leaves. They still respected the root and offered it to the sun god, Apollo, in the temple of Delphi and also considered it to be worth its weight in silver. Hippocrates used leaves of beetroot for binding and dressing wounds while Talmud, written in 4th and 5th century, advises eating beetroot, among other things, for longer life. Romans ate the roots but mainly for medicinal purposes. They used it as a laxative or to cure fever. Some used it as food as Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, wrote a book called ‚ÄúThe Art of Cooking‚ÄĚ and in it gave recipes with beetroots used in broths and salads with mustard, oil, and vinegar.¬†The root part of the beet was cultivated for consumption in either Germany or Italy, first recorded in 1542.¬†The Elizabethans enjoyed them in tarts and stews. Medieval cooks stuffed them into pies.¬†All these uses were an old variant of beetroot which was long and thin like a parsnip.¬†This variety is thought to have evolved from a prehistoric North African root vegetable. The one that we know today appeared in the 16th and 17th century in Europe. It needed a few hundred years more to become popular in Central and Eastern Europe where new cuisines with beetroot started appearing. In 1747 a chemist from Berlin discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. His student, Franz Achard, perfected this method for extracting sugar, leading him to predict the inevitable rise of beet beer, tobacco and molasses, among other products. The King of Prussia subsidized a sugar beet industry. The first plant was built in what is now western Poland. Today, around 20 percent of the world‚Äôs sugar comes from sugar beets. Beet sugar production requires 4 times less water than sugar cane production, making it an attractive crop throughout Europe. In Victorian times, beetroot was used to bring color to an otherwise colorless diet and as a sweet ingredient in desserts. Industrialisation allowed for easier preparation and conservation of vegetables, so beetroot became more available. The rosy betalain-rich juice of red beets was used as a cheek and lip stain by women during the 19th century, a practice that inspired the old adage ‚Äúred as a beet.‚Ä̬†Food shortages in Europe following World War One caused illnesses, including cases of mangel-wurzel disease.¬†It was symptomatic of eating only beets.¬†After the Second World War, because of the rations in some places, the most available vegetable was pickled beetroot in jars.

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The beet greens (leaves) are also edible. The young leaves can be eaten raw as part of a leafy salad whilst the older ones are better boiled or steamed, like cooked spinach. I find that the leaves are very strong tasting and don’t particularly like them. But my poultry love them.¬†Do not cut the leaves, but twist them off to prevent the colour ‘bleeding’.

Many complain that beets have an ‚Äúearthy‚ÄĚ taste, which isn‚Äôt far off the mark. Beets contain a substance called geosmin, which is responsible for that fresh soil scent in your garden following a spring rain. Humans are quite sensitive to geosmin, even in very low doses, which explains why our beet response ranges from one extreme to the other.

They are rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. They also contain unique antioxidants called betalains, which are currently being studied as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer. Beetroot can lower blood pressure and may increase blood flows to the brain thereby preventing dementia. A 2010 study carried out by Queen Mary‚Äôs University in London found that drinking just one 250ml glass of beetroot juice a day dramatically lowered blood pressure for several hours. Nitrates lower blood pressure because bacteria in the mouth and gut convert it into the gas nitric oxide, which relaxes and widens the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate more freely.¬†Tests were conducted to see if beetroot would effect athlete’s performances. Athletes could run faster after drinking beetroot juice and cyclists racing in high altitudes had quicker finishing times, averagely 16 seconds quicker after drinking beetroot juice too.¬†Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beetroot its rich hue, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties.¬†In 2011, a study carried out by Howard University in Washington, USA,¬† found that betacyanin slowed tumour growth by 12.5 per cent when exposed to prostate and breast cancer cells. I remember reading an interview a while ago in the Telegraph about tennis player Ross Hutchins who suffered from a variety of cancer. He¬†had beetroot and orange juice every morning and evening. ‚ÄėEven when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,‚Äô he says.¬†The red colour compound beatnin¬†is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations may temporarily cause urine or stools to assume a reddish colour, in the case of urine a condition called beeturia.

I really didn’t like beetroot. I really intensely disliked it. The first time I got myself to like beetroot was when it was grated with a leafy green salad alongside a baked potato with cheese and baked beans. I had to finish everything on my plate, including the beetroot, but surprisingly, I actually came round to it. It was ok grated into tiny pieces, not so earthy and overpowering. I was pretty happy as it meant I could grow it in the garden and actually eat it. They didn‚Äôt convert me into a radish or fennel fan, but beetroot was good enough. I have been harvesting my two year old beetroots and enjoying them at last.

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Grated beetroot on top of poached egg yolk on toast

Sprinkle grated beetroot over mashed avocado on toast, it looks beautiful. Another thing I like is grated beetroot sprinkled on top of toast that has been covered with butter and a poached egg yolk (I don’t like egg whites. I’m sorry I’m so fussy…).

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Avocado on toast with beetroot – this is two year old beetroot!

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The MIGHTY Potato

I do love potatoes. I love cooking with them. Eating them. But I particularly love to grow them. They can be easy to grow and take care of themselves quite well as long as they get space, food and water – and you keep your fingers crossed that the blight will miss you or will hit your crops in August rather than May or June.

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The potato, the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world‚Äôs fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. The potato‚Äôs cultivation in South America my span back 10,000 years but tubers do not keep well in archeological recordings and therefore precise identification of those that have been discovered is difficult. However, the earliest finding was found on the coastal sight of Ancon, central Peru, dating 2500 BC. Potatoes provided the Inca Empire as a principle energy source, perhaps their predecessors and the Spanish successors too. At 10,000 feet altitude, occupants of Peru could freeze the potatoes and preserve them as a food source, turning them into ‚Äėchuno‚Äô. The Spanish fed chuno to silver miners during the 16th century that funded their country.

The Spanish Conquistadors carried the potato to Europe. Sailors of Basque’s families began to cultivate the crop along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland in 1589 where they were established near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the vegetable to spread across the rest of Europe.

The Spanish army spread potatoes amongst the peasants where they went. To begin with, the vegetable took up so much space on land that was reserved for livestock that potatoes were restricted to garden growers rather than fields. It was in the 1700s that the French and German governments and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow lands into potato fields. They had discovered that potatoes were easier to grow in a European climate rather than wheat or oats during the ‚ÄėLittle Ice Age‚Äô where temperatures rapidly dropped – potatoes continued to grow when other staple crops failed. Famines during the 1770s also contributed to their rise in popularity. Thus, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. By the 19th century, the potato had replaced the turnip as the most popular crop to harvest.

The potato had three main advantages during the 19th century: it had a lower rate of spoilage, its bulk satisfied hunger and it was cheap. In England, potatoes were popular for the urban workers to grown in their backyards for an inexpensive source of food. The potato became equal to iron in its ‚Äėhistorically revolutionary role‚Äô (Friedrich Engels).

In Ireland, the expansive potato production was due to landless labourers renting tiny plots of ground from land owners who were interested in raising cattle and grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was considered enough to feed a whole family in a rural population. However, in the 1840s a major outbreak or potato blight swept through Europe after originating from the Americas. A lack of genetic diversity, especially in Europe, from the low number of varieties left the crop vulnerable to disease. The blight destroyed potato crops all over Europe but the damage done to Ireland where the working class relied on potatoes was significantly awful as their main food staple disappeared in 1845. The Lumper potato that was widely cultivated in Ireland before the strike of disease yielded large crops but was poorly resistant to blight. Dependence on the Lumper turned to disaster. The Irish Famine led to approximately a million deaths due to starvation and disease that attacked the weekend bodies that were lacking in nutrition due to the sudden reduction of food. There was a massive emigration to Britain, the US and Canada during this time and did not start to settle until the beginning of the 20th century after around a million had left.

Blight remains an ongoing problem in Europe and the US. During the crop year of 2008, many potatoes certified as organic were sprayed with copper pesticide to control potato blight. On analysis, these potatoes contained a low value of pesticide residue but the highest amongst the fifty vegetables analysed.

There is not much one can do with blight, only grow early varieties to try to beat the inevitable disease. Blight strikes when it is hot and moist, usually in late summer like August when we seem to get a period of high rainfall (hence my fears for this years wet summer weather after such a dismal June). The disease causes the potatoes to rot. The tell-tale signs are dark blotches on the leaves. At the first sign, cut away the foliage and burn, do not compost as the disease is airborne. Try and leave the infected plant in the ground for a couple of weeks to allow the skins to mature and hope that when you lift the potatoes, they have developed enough to be eatable and have not rotted down to mush.

Other problems one might encounter when grown potatoes are potato beetles and moths that spread infections to the plant. Another is the potato cyst nematode, a microscopic worm that thrives on the root and causes the plants to wilt. Its eggs can survive in the soil for year, hence the importance of crop rotation. The other is potato scab – just peel your potatoes well. The same attitude should be taken for slightly green potatoes that have been exposed to light: peel and cut the green areas out before eating unless all of the potato is green. Then I am afraid you will have to discard it.

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When growing potatoes, I like to class them as First Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrop varieties and generally plant them in that order.

I dig a trench Рit doesn’t need to be too deep, about one or two stabs with a spade will do Рand fill it with well-rotted manure and soil before applying a good layer of mulch over the top to hold in the nutrients and moisture. Potatoes love a well-fed and watered bed with acidic soil. Potato scab is more of an issue in alkaline soil.

‚ÄėChitting‚Äô is nice and easy. Place the potato tubers you are going to plant in a dry, cardboard holder. We use our multiple of egg boxes or those cardboard containers they stock yoghurt containers in at supermarkets (I shamefully buy trays worths when I go for my breakfast). Leave the container on a windowsill in the light during early spring. The seed potatoes develop nodules, or chits. These are the beginning of new growth. When you have two or three chits, you can start planting.

To plant once chitted (as early as February or March they can start going in), dig a hole in your prepared trench or bed, 10 cm down for Earlies, 20cm for others. Place your potato in, chits up, and infill, forming a small mound so you can recognise the spot where your new shoots will start coming through. Leave 30cm gaps between each plant. It is a good idea to place some fleece or another cover over the top if you are planting them out early on in the year and the frosts are still around when the leaves start to grow – frost will damage the leaves and slow down the growth of the crop. As the green leaves start to grow, it is traditional to ‚Äėearth up‚Äô. You rake up the surrounding soil to create a ridge along the line of the potatoes. It is to stop the light from reaching the top few potatoes that might show above the soil. Otherwise, they turn green and become inedible. Our ‚Äėearthing up‚Äô involves us putting a circle of well-rotted manure around the plant on top of more soil and then applying another layer of mulch. This feeds the plant at the same time in our sandy soil. Potatoes will benefit from a liquid feed very couple of weeks if you can get round them all. Pinch out the flowers as they appear to increase your yield.

To harvest, lift First and Second Earlies as you need them, starting from perhaps May or June. These are the traditional boiling potatoes, think of those tiny Jersey New potatoes we eat with a crisp salad on a summer’s evening.

Maincrop potatoes, our nice, big, baking ones, should be ready for lifting sometime in July or most likely August. Place the potatoes on newspaper to dry, turning them over to make sure both sides are dealt with. Store them in hessian sacks in a dark space. We use our cupboard under the stairs where it is quite cold as well as dark.

We discovered last year that even after all the plants contracted blight (quite late) the potatoes still kept better when left in the ground than stored in our house. We planted so many potatoes that we continued to dig them up in perfect condition into the new year, even after frosts. The leaves had died and gone but the fully grown potatoes still remained. We dug up the last in January meaning we were eating freshly dug up potatoes I had harvested on Christmas Day and Boxing Day morning as well and New Years Eve‚Äôs roast dinners we annually hold for relatives. This year, we will not be digging up the potatoes in a rush, we will be taking them when we require them as the year goes on as I really believe they store better in the ground. As long as you follow crop rotation and ensure that you did up all of the potatoes you plant each year before the new growing season to avoid ‚Äėvolunteer potatoes‚Äô that can harbour blight, then you should be fine.

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Now there are around 4000 varieties of potatoes but we have bred standard, well-known ones, resulting in around 80 types being available in the UK.

Earlies I have tried and loved: Swift, Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Foremost, Epicure

Main crops: Picasso (my favourite for baking with), Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Nero, Desiree, Sarpo Blue Danube

There are of course plenty of others, especially popular varieties like Kind Edwards. Try and test as any as you like Sarpos are popular types as they are supposedly more blight resistant.

In 2013, it was reported that about 368 million tonnes of potatoes were produced worldwide. Two-thirds were for human consumption, the rest divided for animal fodder and use as starch. In October 1995, the potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space.

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Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, assisting our immune systems as well as many bodily functions. They are considered on of the best sources of potassium (they have more than a banana), vital for normalizing blood pressure and transmitting nerve impulses and helping muscles contract. One medium potato with the skin contributes 8% of our daily fibre intake that may help reduce cholesterol. They are a good source of B6, helping our bodies make nonessential amino acids needed to make various proteins, required for the synthesis of haemoglobin, an essential component of red blood cells. One medium-sized potato provides 6% of our daily recommended intake of iron. Another major component of haemoglobin that carries oxygen to all parts of the body, iron also has a critical role within cells assisting in oxygen utilisation, enzymatic systems, especially for neural development, and overall cell function everywhere in the body. The protein in potatoes is approximately 3g per serving. When combined with another protein source, like cheese or beans, potatoes are an excellent meal for someone who does not eat meat and relies on plant-based proteins.

For culinary purposes, varieties are often differentiated by their waxiness. Floury, or mealy (baking) potatoes have more starch (20‚Äď22%) than waxy (boiling) potatoes (16‚Äď18%). Potatoes can be cooked in many ways: boiled, baked, microwaved, mashed, roasted, fried, made into chips, dried into crisps‚Ķ Personally, I love a good baked potato with a crispy skin, mashed with butter with perhaps some cheddar cheese sprinkled on top alongside a salad, or baked beans, peas or runner beans. Cut in half, microwaves and then at the last-minute placing strips of cheese on top, microwave them again until the cheese has melted and then serving the halfs with baked beans was another childhood supper. Otherwise, I like mine boiled, my brother likes his mashed with butter and a little milk, my sister adores them roasted.

I will be sharing plenty of potato recipes but to begin with, here is one I discovered earlier this year. It was after I had made Red Bean and Potato Moussaka (¬†Books ‚Äď Cookery). One of my favourite parts of the dish were the par-boiled potatoes on top with the melted, browned cheese. I thought that it would be delicious as a meal on its own, like a different version of Potato Dauphinoise. We tried it and it was simple and delicious with either cooked vegetables (warming winter meal) or a salad (light and crunchy summer meal). This can be done with early potatoes or main crop ones cut into chunks.

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Potato Cheese Bake

(Serves 6)

Р75g butter Р900g (1kg) potatoes, peeled and sliced  -300g cheddar cheese, grated                 РSalad to serve with (lettuce, cucumber, spinach, watercress, rocket, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, beetroot…) or cooked vegetables (peas, runner beans, broad beans, boiled carrots, kale, cabbage…)

  1. Preheat oven 200C or put the grill on high.
  2. Bring a large pan to the boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer until cooked. To check that they are done, stick a fork into a potato and hold it above the pan. If it slides off easily, then it is cooked. If it remains stuck on, leave it to cook a little longer.
  3. Drain the potatoes and spread a layer over a long, oblong ovenproof dish. Cut the butter into chunks and mix into the potatoes in the dish. Scatter a thick layer of cheddar cheese over the top.
  4. Put the dish in the oven or under the grill to cook until the cheese had melted and turned brown on top. Under the grill this will take approximately 10-15 minutes, but keep an eye on it just in case as the time will vary. In the oven, this will take longer, perhaps even up to half an hour. Again, keep an eye on it.
  5. Serve with salad or cooked vegetables.

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