Archive for category Cultivation

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of my favourite foods so I grow as many as I can fit in my garden and choose varieties for their flavour, use and season and I make sure of a good crop by really taking care of them. As with most plants if you give them a good start and the best growing conditions you will be rewarded with better crops and stronger plants that need less care in the long run.

Choosing Tomato varieties
My favourite eating tomato is still Noir de Crimee, a black Russian heirloom; odd shape, odd colour but fantastic taste. Cherry tomatoes are a must for me as they are great to graze on while pottering around the garden. Next I make sure I have plenty of tomatoes for preserving, some varieties being better than others, the best I’ve tried so far are San Marzano and Roma for paste and sauces see the page on best preserving tomatoes. The other thing to consider is the length of the season. Some tomatoes bear fruit more quickly than others and are normally described by the number of days from planting out to first fruit ripening i.e. Early 55-70 days, Mid-Season 70-85 days and Late beyond 85 days. Next is variety of flavour and colour which makes for wonderful mixed tomato salads so it is nice to grow a few mild white tomatoes, acidic green ones and puunchy orange ones.

The first thing about tomatoes is that they need plenty of nutrients to produce all those lovely fruits, but the nutrients need to be added as they grow, if you put too much in at the beginning they are more likely to have too much leaf growth at the expense of fruit.

Soil Preparation
Tomatoes need a constant medium level of moisture. Too dry, too wet or too much fluctuation often causes blossom end rot resulting in unusable tom

atoes. Prepare the soil where the tomatoes are to be grown either by preparing planting holes, troughs or the entire bed. I prefer to prepare troughs as this helps to direct the most nutrients and moisture to the roots and it makes it easier to water when needed. Dig a long ditch 2 spades deep and 1 spade wide. Put a layer of chopped comfrey leaves on the bottom and half fill with  a mixture of well rotten compost and manure 9 parts compost to one part manure and water heavily to fill the trough.

Tomato-Spacing 390.jpg

Planting depth
Plant the tomatoes in the bottom of the trough, as deep as you can, right up to the first set of true leaves, remove the remaining baby leaves. Roots will grow from th

e stalks giving the plant more stability and ability to draw more moisture and nutrients from the soil cover with dry soil but leave sides to the trough. This will help protect the young plants from wind and help direct water to the plants.

Spacing and Staking
Tomatoes need a fare bit of space as they don’t like to be crowded. It depends on how you plan to grow the tomatoes as to what distance apart they should by anything from 40-75cm apart works. I normally set out at around 50cm apart and grow them as cordons, that is straight up a pole with one main stem or sometimes two depending on how vigorous the variety. Cordon tomatoes need to be staked, I use 2 meter metal, chestnut, or cane poles with a cross brace on windy sites. Tie in the plants as they grow so that the tops are firmly but gently attached to the poles.

Top Dressing
Once the tomatoes are in place add a top dressing of organic soil enhancer such as seaweed meal or well rotted manure. The dressing will gradually be brought down into the soil by water and the soluble nutrients can then be drawn up by the plant as it grows.

Applying a mulch, a top cover, over the ground around the tomatoes will help protect the soil and plants and conserve the moisture level in the soil. For more details on mulching read Using Mulches

Pinching out
Intermediate tomatoes have a habit of growing into bushes which produce a lot of leaf and plant growth but less fruit. In order to concentrate the plants energy on the fruit it helps to pinch out the side shoots. That is the little sprouts that form between the main stems and a leaf branch. Pinch these out with your fingers when they are less than 12cm. If you have missed a few and they have got bigger cut them off with clippers or a knife so as not to tear the plant.

Liquid Feed
Tomatoes benefit from a liquid feed, applied every 2 weeks, once the fruit start to form. You can buy ready made preparations but why not make you own. For more details on liquid feeds read Making Organic Liquid Fertilisers

Gardener’s Tip

Russian Comfrey is one of the most versatile plants for the organic kitchen gardener as it is a fantastic natural source of potash-rich organic material and liquid feed. It’s many uses include; compost activator, liquid feed, potting mix, soil enhancer, mulch and bee attractant.

The real value of comfrey lies in its composition. The roots bring up potassium, phosphate and other minerals from deep in the ground to the leaves which are also high in nitrogen. Comfrey has 2-3 times more potassium than animal manure, which makes it especially good for the production of flowers, fruits and seeds.

Beware Russian Comfrey  (Symphytum x uplandicum) is quite a different plant from Wild Comfrey. (Symphytum asperum). Russian Comfrey is a hybrid and is sterile so does not freely seed. Wild Comfrey seeds madly and can be a real nuisance, we had some growing in our garden in England and I could not get rid of it.


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Growing Sprouting Seed

If you haven’t got a garden, or the time to wait for salad crops to mature in the ground, or despite your best efforts your lettuces have succumbed to a scorching summer, hungry wildlife or your summer holiday away; sprouting seeds will fill the gap.

Sprouted seeds are packed full of energy, are highly nutritious and are very easy to grow in your own kitchen, you don’t even need a garden.  They take only a few days and no special equipment to grow yet provide delicious, almost instant satisfaction, and dinner on the plate.

Seeds are just plants waiting to happen, dry they are in a dormant state and only need to be filled with water to become a living entity. Seeds sprout fastest in a warm light airy place, out of direct sunlight, with an ambient temperature of 18-22 Celsius, which is pretty much the condition of most kitchens. All you need is a large glass jar with a screw top lid and water. You can use a purpose made sprouter, there are many inexpensive types available, or you can make your own by piercing the lid of a jam jar to make drainage holes or securing a square of muslin over the top of the jar with an elastic band.

Firstly soak the seeds in a large jar filled with cool water, as directed for each seed type. Empty out the water and flush with more fresh water to rinse then drain thoroughly. Rinse and drain the jar twice a day, until the seeds have sprouted and are ready to eat.You can decide for yourself at what stage you like them best, as soon as the seed has fattened up from its first soaking it can be eaten or it can be left to grow on until it has full size sprouts.

When the sprouted seeds are at their peak rinse, drain and empty into a paper lined plastic box or glass jar, seal and store in the lower part of a fridge. The temperature in the fridge will halt growth and the sprouts can be stored for several days in prime condition before being eaten.

What to sprout
Some of my favourite sprouted seeds are also the most commonly available to buy.
Alfalfa (Luzerne in French) Soak seeds for 4 hours. Alfalfa will be ready to eat in 3-7 days
Crisp sweet flavour like fresh peas, delicious raw in salads or sandwich fillings.  Rich in amino acids which are very important for the metabolism and helps lower cholesterol. Rich in phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, B1, C, D, E, K.
Mung Bean (Haricot mungo in French) Soak seeds for 12 hours will germinate ready to eat in 5-8 days. Delicious raw in rice noodle and oriental style soups & salads, stir fried or used as stuffing for spring rolls. These are the ‘beansprouts’ most commonly found in oriental shops and restaurants. Commercially they are hulled and grown in darkness and under weight pressure to achieve the dense white crisp sprouts we are familiar with.
Chick Peas (Pois chiches in French) Soak 4 tbsp peas for 8-12 hours ready to eat in 3-6 days
Lentils (Lentilles in French) Soak seeds for 8 hours will germinate ready to eat in 5-8 days

You can find seeds specifically for sprouting, from health food shops and some seed companies. You can also experiment with all manner of vegetable and herb seeds that can be sprouted and are delicious; including pumpkins, peas, sunflowers, broccoli, leeks, onions, and chives. For more information and inspiration on what and how to sprout visit Sprout People or  Primal Seeds.

Originally Posted  on Mas du Diable 16/8/2007:

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Growing Citrus Fruit in Pots

My dream would be to have an orange, lemon and lime grove stretching as far as the eye could see with a few Kaffir lime and other strange citrus dotted around. A dream inspired by a visit to Seville and walking through a magnificent orangery in nearby Cordoba, the dimension of the trees just tall enough to walk under, the colours of the fruit hanging against the shiny dark green leaves and the perfumes from the leaves, fruit and flowers was pure heaven and inspired me to grow citrus.

Further North, however the weather can be too cold and wet in winter to support citrus trees in the ground but just because we haven’t got an ideal climate, soil or conditions it is not going to stop me trying to grow citrus. I have found that we are able to grow some citrus fruit in pots and get a fairly decent harvest (for the size of the trees), these pots can be brought inside in winter bringing with them the scents and smells of an exotic orangery.

A few years ago my mum bought us our first Lemon tree (Citrus Limon) a small 2-3 year old dwarf variety called La Valette which produces pale yellow round aromatic fruit with a thin smooth skin. It bore 3 perfect fruit in its first year and so far fruits every year and sometimes twice, then my nieces, Ruby and Nelly, bought me a Kaffir Lime tree (Citrus Hystrix) for my birthday, a healthy looking brute which produces the wonderfully pungent leaves essential to Thai cooking as well as green gnarly fruit. Next i bought a lemon tree in Italy which is a standard form and produces long fruit with a thick skin (pictured above).

We are just at the beginning with our citrus adventure, not having grown any before, but our limited success so far is encouraging.


Temperature Most citrus need heat which is fine in the summer but should not be subjected to temperatures below 0, although some are said to survive up to -5, (ours have survived -7 with protection outside) to be on the safe side make sure to protect against frost and bring them indoors if it’s not possible to put them in a light frost-free place outside.
Soil a slightly acidic soil that is light, well aerated, well-drained and rich.
Feed with a diluted seaweed folia spray, a special ‘agrumes’ fertiliser or the traditional feed of diluted urine during the growing season. Mulch with well-rotted compost in autumn.
Water Citrus need a good supply of water but should never be left soggy or water-logged. A good soaking every few days in the dry summer, once a week (or when soil has completely dried out) in spring and autumn and rarely in winter, only when the soil is really dried out. Citrus will benefit from a spray of water on the leaves at night in high summer.
Space Re-pot every 2-3 years in Spring.

By growing our citrus trees in pots we can give nature a helping hand and move the small trees around to find the best micro climate for our weather conditions during the year. By putting them beside a south-facing wall in spring and autumn they are outdoors to benefit from the sun and heat on warm days but get the radiated heat from the wall to protect them from temperature dips. In winter we put them in an open cave which gets full low winter sun during the day and keeps some heat during the night to keep frost at bay. In summer they go out into the garden to benefit from full sun, occasionally pulling them into the shade if it gets too hot for a rest. By growing in pots we can also ensure that they have soil specifically tailored to them and a watering regime to suit.

Lemons Lisbon and Eureka and Villafranca are the most hardy and commonly grown. Mayer is recommended for conservatory growing and Citron de Nice is both hardy and resistant to cold. La Valette suitable for pots and fruits all year round, unripe lemons can be used as limes.

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Planting Leeks

I thought I’d share my method of leek planting as I do find it fascinating. It is the classic technique that many of the old timers advocate but more modern gardeners seem to shun. I personally think it works a treat and is particularly good for dry conditions.

When I was a kid my dad used to grow whopping leeks for the show bench. As one of those mad exhibition vegetable growers, his process for growing leeks was finely tuned, if not obsessive. His leeks were planted on long raised beds stacked with manure and earthed up to blanch the stems. I can remember him out in the garden with a tape measuring the girth of his leeks. I just grow leeks for eating, so no fancy treatment here. Apart from planting out and watering no further attention is required until harvest.

The best time to plant winter leeks in my garden is late summer, depending on the weather. If it is too hot and dry I’ll leave it until later, even as late as the end of October.  Leeks are best started in a seed bed and planted out when about the thicknesss shown below. In France it is common place for gardeners to buy baby leeks at this stage rather than go to the trouble of raising the seedlings themselves.


Carefully dig up the young leeks and put straight into a bucket of water, keep them like this until you are ready ready to pant, which you need to do within a day or two. Take the seedling leeks and cut the roots back to 3 or 4cm, then I cut the tops off just above the smallest inside leaf. It may seem a bit harsh on the plant but it really does work for seedling alliums. The reason for doing this is to reduce any damaged or unnecessary plant material so that the roots are not supporting what they don’t need.  Reducing the roots is optional but I find that it does help the leeks to re-establish and it cuts back roots which may have been damaged when the seedlings were pulled up. It also makes the seedlings more manageable, getting huge long roots into the planting hole is difficult, roots can get congested or damaged. This method allows the roots room to start again and water to be taken up more readily on planting. It is an old technique used in the UK and more commonly in France when planting anything out in summer, even lettuces get this treatment, which I do find a bit barbaric and my observation is that they never quite recover from it. Lettuces are much better plug sown and planted out without too much disturbance. Anyway I digress. Leeks do seem to like this treatment so I carry on doing it.


  1. Clear any weeds from the planting area. In this case I am using land that had corn and pumpkins on previously so it was heavily manured earlier in the year.
  2. Hoe the top 6-10cm of soil to loosen and work in a little bonemeal and woodashes or not previously manured.
  3. Mark a line for the row of leeks and with a knife or trowel dig a planting hole about 10cm deep, at intervals of 20 to 30cm. Spacing will depend on the variety or how big you want the leeks to grow.
  4. Drop each baby leek into a hole and water well. In dry weather water the holes before putting the leeks in, as well as after.

Note There is no need to push the soil back in around the leek. The roots are safely at the bottom of the hole and the hole has been filled with water. Gradually the hole will fill with soil and or the leek expand to fill the hole. Either way you get a nice blanched stem and a leek with plenty of water directed to the roots.


Water well every few days making sure each hole gets filled for the first couple of weeks until the roots get a chance to establish then water as normal once a week or so.

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Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae family which also includes: Cucumbers, Gourds, Squash, Melons and Courgettes & marrows. These half-hardy annuals make good potager plants because not only are they a great food source over the winter months but the leaves and flowers are attractive as well as the fruits. Most cucurbits will either trail over the ground or climb over supports. Supported they take up less space and the quality of the fruit is better, they can also provide shade for more delicate leafy plants during the summer months. Plant cucurbits to climb over walkways, pergolas, trellises, posts, bean poles and fences.

If you want a bumper crop, pumpkins need space. For our needs we don’t need that many so I prefer to stuff them in wherever I can; on the edges of beds to run under large brassicas or corn or to grow along perimeter fencing or over trellicing. As a general guide at a minimum plant bush varieties about 75cm (2ft) apart and trailing varieties 3-4ft apart or give them more space and plant bush varieties 1.5m (3-5ft) apart and trailing varieties 2-2.5m (6-8ft) apart. Allow plenty of room for the plants to spread or climb.

Site & Soil
Pumpkins are fairly greedy and thirsty plants requiring well drained, moist, rich soil in full sun. Cucurbits require a growing season of 3-4 months with a mean monthly temp of 18-27c. Minimum soil temp should be 13c. Avoid cold sites and exposed positions. To prepare a cucurbit bed: Dig out planting holes at your chosen spacing at least 30cm (1ft) deep and 45cm-60cm. Work-in a bucket-full of compost/manure. Return topsoil leaving a shallow depression in the top. Form a ridge 5cm (2in) high surrounding each planting hole to help retain moisture.


potting on a cucurbit plug

Most cucurbits will not transplant very well so in warm conditions it is best to sow direct. However if you want to get an early start or the beds are not free yet you can sow in pots undercover and plant out to minimise root disturbance.

  1. Sow undercover 3-4 weeks before the last frost is expected, (at the same time the planting holes are being prepared outside). Sow seeds, on their side, in a good free draining seed compost in 7.5cm biodegradable or plastic pots, 2 seeds per pot . Apply a layer of compost or vermiculite, 1cm (½in.) deep. Place in a propagator or polythene bag until the seeds germinate. Thin out the weeker seedling. When the remaining seedling has 3-6 true leaves and the roots have filled the pot (usually after 2-3 weeks). Harden off (1-2 weeks in a cold frame or in a sheltered spot) and plant-out once all danger of frost has past, to the level of the soil in the pot. The neck of the plant can be vulnerable to rot so should not be buried.
  2. Sow in plugs – curcubits grow well in the little pucks availble from gardening shops. Hydrate the pucks and sow one seed in the centre of each, press the sides to cover and keep moist at all times. When the roots appear at the edges of the puck plant out or on into a pot and treat as above.
  3. Sow direct when the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has past, in our area that is early May. Sow 2 seeds (1in deep) into each of your prepared planting holes. Cover with a mini cloche (a cut down water bottle) if necessary for protection. When the plants emerge thin to the strongest.

Germination at 20-30C usually takes 5-10days. Seeds can be soaked over night to aid germination or chitted and sown when sprouted. Seeds should be sown on their sides not flat.

Pollination Male and female flowers are usually born separately and are insect pollinated. The female flower can be distinguished by the tiny bump behind the petals which develops into the fruit after fertilisation. Hand pollination may be necessary if fruits fail to set (best done in the morning).

Planting by the moon
Sowing at the optimum point of the lunar calendar really does seem to make a difference to Cucurbits. In our small scale trials cucurbits have germinated significantly better when sown 1 day before a full moon.

Water-in thoroughly after planting out. Water regularly and liquid feed (seaweed) every 14 days once fruit start to develop. Mark the position of the plant, with a tall stick, as it can be difficult to see where the root of the plant is when in full growth. Train Tie into supports if growing up and If growing on the ground train the leading shoot to grow in a circle, it looks great saves space and can increase plants food supply. Pin down the stems / or bury at intervals the cucurbit should develop roots on the stem thereby increasing food intake. Prune Fruits develop on laterals as well as the main stem so if the plants become too rampant nip out the main growing point and cut back laterals to within a couple of inches of the nearest developing fruit. Thin small fruit and use them in the kitchen to encourage larger fruit later. MULCH Make sure supports are strong enough to take the weight of the plant and be prepared to individually support the larger fruit if necessary.

Companion: Cucurbits tend to grow well with; beans, peas, sweetcorn, capsicums, nasturtium but mostly do NOT grow well with potatoes. Plant flowers around Cucurbit beds to encourage pollinating insects.

Harvesting and Storage
Because Pumpkins store so well they are an excellent source of food over the winter months. On average they will keep for 6months but some store for 12 months or more. Store in well ventilated conditions at temperatures between 7 and 16c. At higher temperatures they will dry out. Pumpkins can be used immature cutting early will result in a heavier crop for winter but when harvesting for winter storage they must be harvested mature.

Signs of maturity are:

  • Skin colour changing from light to dark some green types may also loose their gloss.
  • Stalks become corky and dry (about 50% brown is a good sign of maturity.
  • Skin cannot be pierced with a thumb nail.
  • Flesh is orange rather than yellow and the seeds are hard.
  • Cracks appear on stems and skins

Leave on the plant as long as possible but bring in before 1st frost. Cut with 3-5cm (1-2in) of stalk. Cure in a sunny sheltered position (27-32c) (e.g. against a sunny wall) for 4 -10days to allow stalk to seal and skin to harden. Protect from night frost.

Nutrition and Culinary
Pumpkins have a higher nutritional value than courgettes and marrows (summer squash) and the Cucurbita moschata have a particularly high Vitamin C content 30% more than maxima and 80% more than pepo. Pumpkins are pretty versatile they can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. As a vegetable they can be pureed, cut into chunks and stir fried, deep fried, boiled or stewed. They can be added to soups and casseroles or cooked with mustard greens. They can be made into excellent sweet pickles, the ripe seeds can be roasted as a snack or added to salads and the flowers are a delicacy. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids, potassium, and magnesium.

Favourite Varieties
There are so many varieties of pumpkin it is impossible to grow all of them in one life time, but here are some of my favourites so far. I tend to prefer the dryer nuttier types of pumpkin.

Butternut (moschata)
reliable large cropper, creamy ochre smooth skin with a pear shape, flesh is golden-orange with a lovely hazelnut flavour. Fruit are high in Vitamin C. Great roasted, pureed or in stews, curries etc. Keeps 12months. Seed source: from organic seeds given to me by another organic grower.

Green Hokkaido (maxima)- pictured above
fattish round pumpkin with slight ribbing, dark green skin with a dense, nutty, dry, yellow to orange flesh. Each plant produces 1-3 fruit around 13-25cm in diameter with an average weight of 1-2.2kg. Matures in 98 days from direct sowing. Keeps well, 9-12months. Source Ferme St. Marthe

Marina di Chioggia (maxima) – pictured aboveItalian Heirloom – magnificent to look at, dark green knobbly skin with deep yellow orange flesh, growing up to. 5kg. lovely baked. Stores well 9-12months and flavour often improves with age. Seed source: Seeds of Italy, Seeds of Kokopelli, Ferme St. Marthe

Potimarron Red Kuri (maxima)  A Japanese ‘Orange Hokkaido’ type pumpkin also known as Uchiki Kury. Brick-red tear drop shaped fruits weigh in at 1.5-2.5 kg and an average diameter of 15cm. They have a wonderful dense dry flesh and a deep chestnut flavour. Stores 4-6 months. pictured above

Potimarron (maxima) originally brought from Japan by Macrobiotic master Oshawa. Now a French classic. Chestnut flavoured dense flesh 2-4kg Keeps fairly well, 4-8 months. Matures in 90days from direct sowing. Seed source: Seeds of Kokopelli, Ferme St. Marthe

Blue Hubbard (maxima) Huge, teardrop-shaped fruit weigh 15-40 lbs and have sweet, fine-grained, golden flesh. Great for baking, pies, and soup. The hard, blue-gray shell helps these keep for long periods in storage. Gregory Seed Company introduced this fine New England variety in 1909, and Mr. Gregory considered it his best introduction. pictured right

Musquee de Provence (moschata) French southern heirloom variety smooth skin, green ripening to ochre with deep ribs and sweet, aromatic firm orange flesh, They look a bit like a Cinderella pumpkin. Vines are vigorous and can grow up to 6m bearing 2-5 9kg fruit. Matures in 110days from direct sowing. Keeps well.


Lettuces, Winter Varieties

Winter Lettuces are varieties of lettuces that can be sown late in the season, will tolerate cold and low light levels and still provide leaf pickings for the salad bowl right through winter and into spring. Some of my favourite lettuces are these hardy types because they have robust flavours, crisp leaves and good textures.

Winter Lettuce Rouge Grenobloise

Winter Lettuce Verde D’Inverno

Lettuces mature in around 50-60 days when grown at optimum temperatures but the lettuce will slow down in cold weather, a trait which gardeners can use to their advantage. In cold weather a lettuce can stand fresh and ready to be picked for 2 or more months, it won’t go to seed and if you can protect the crop from very cold or wet weather and if you can get the timing right it will stand in perfect condition right through winter. So plan your winter crop of lettuce so that it is almost ready to pick by the first frosts of winter. At that stage it is large enough to stand light frost outdoors and undercover survive happily in surounding tempertures of -10c.

Lettuces Winter Density young heads ready to cut

My pick of varieties
To get a good lettuce crop throughout winter it is best to select winter lettuce varieties, those that have proven themselves or been selected for thier growth habit and hardiness. My favourites include:
Winter Density (Cos) a lovely solid crisp green heading cos, standing tall and fairly tightly wrapped; excellent undercover in winter and outdoors in late winter/early spring. Rouge Grenobloise (Batavian) Large crispheads with red-tinted ruffled leaves, good flavour, cold hardy and will grow happily in shade; an excellent winter lettuce outdoors. Ubriacona (Loose Leaf Batavian) This Italian Heirloom has beautiful green hearts with red outer edged leaves, performs well and has great taste and texture. Provides cutting lettuce all year and will overwinter in my garden. Verde D’Inverno (Cos) Tall mid green heads crisp leaves with good taste. Stands well through winter. Rougette de Montpelier, (Butterhead) tight heading lettuce with crisp white stalks and soft green leaves tinged red at the edges, this variety can be grown undercover or outdoors but I find the flavour is better and the heads are crisper if grown outdoors. Valdor (Butterhead) I grew this lettuce for the first time 2 years ago so I am still testing it out and cannot thoroughly recommend it yet. It grew well in the polytunnel producing voluminous green heads with large fleshy leaves. But it suffered from mildew undercover, as spring approached and temperatures soured undercover, it may do better outdoors so I’ll give it another try this winter.

Rougette de Montpelier, Winter Density, Ubriacona, Valdor

Read more about growing lettuces
Cultivating Lettuces in Summer

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Cutting Back Mint

By late summer mint is usually looking decidedly unappetising, long straggly flower stems and burnt out leaves. But mint, given a good haircut, will come back with flush of tasty fresh leaves.

It is a very simple job that does not need any finesse. Use a pair of secateurs or even shears and cut the long stems back to a  few buds above ground level or to a height you prefer.

Straggly mint in late summer

Mint stems cut back

Mint that has been cut back now has a new flush of growth



Choosing a raised bed system

There are many ways of growing vegetables; in fields, beds, trenches, flooded areas, sunken beds, rows, vertically, square foot beds, grow bags boxes and pots, even in nutrient rich water.

Building East to West raised beds in the Potager

In our area people generally rotivate their land each spring and plant the vegetable gardens out in rows like a mini version of field cultivation. I followed the local way in our first year here but found that our light stony soil was non the better for it; the nutrients and humus I added were just getting washed away during the torrential rains in autumn. So now I prefer a raised bed system; for our sloping growing land with soil that is light, shallow and stony over rock, a raised bed system is what works for us.

Strawberry bed with a mulch of pine needles to increase acidity and to mimic a woodland floor

Benefits of using a raised bed system

  • Soil depth is increased as mulches are applied each year
  • Soil does not get compacted because it is not being walked on
  • Soil is kept aerated and weeded by hoeing the top few inches
  • Soil structure is improved by keeping it undisturbed (digging light soil just turns it to dust).
  • Soil fertility can be improved as and where needed and in rotation
  • Water is conserved by tailoring irrigation to the needs of the crops in each bed
  • Planning and rotating the growing area is easier because beds are fixed
  • Easier to provide specific soil requirements for plants with special needs.
  • On a sloping site a raised bed can level the growing area
  • Work is reduced by digging soil only once and thereafter leaving it alone
  • Taller edges can be made to protect and support some plants
  • It just looks tidy! when i go down to the kitchen gardens it is easy to walk between the beds and harvest what i need.

For us the benefits of a raised bed system outweigh the downsides. Raised beds are less suitable to the light sandy soil and dry conditions we have here, as raised beds have a tendency to dry out faster. However, the fact that the beds won’t be dug over again helps to maintain the soils structure and by top dressing with muck and compost twice a season and mulching in summer we are able to increase the fertility and water retention of the soil making it less prone to drying out in the long term. The bed edges also help to protect the top soil from being whipped away by the long, dry summer winds.

Raised beds in the veg patch (one end woven)

Edging the beds
I did try to just visually mark the bed boundaries because I wanted to be able to change the layout each year but I found that the top dressings and nutrients got washed away in the heavy rains. The higher the planting areas got and the lower the paths got the more got washed away and the growing areas became smaller in time. So I ended up edging the beds.

Ours are not the smartest looking beds, most are edged with whatever i can get my hands on; old planks, the round end bits of trees left over from milling, flat stones, I even tried making some woven edges – far too pretty for my garden, rather pointless and they only lasted a single season but they did look cute (see pic above). I have learned to just make the best use of what I have around without causing myself extra work.

Adapting growing methods to climate and land
We live in a mountainous area which has unfortunately been given over to the mono-culture of pine trees but it would have been covered in a mixed deciduous forest with shrub and low growing plants. This year I plan to start fencing off some new areas of land to try growing edibles in a more natural forest-like way. No fixed beds just a layering of planting that will mirror the way plants grow in nature with trees, bushes, climbers, perennials and annuals (if they self seed) all taking their place. I want to see for myself which is more productive and uses the least water; the permaculture way as advocated by Bill Mollison or the fixed bed intensive growing the way i do it now. Gardening is about adapting and being open to find out what works for each piece of land and climate see Kate’s picture of some clever irrigated sunken vegetable beds in India @ Hills and Plain.

Revised and adapted from my original post 26/3/2007


Litchi Tomato

I grew Morelle De Balbis (Solanum Sisymbriifolium) or Litchi Tomato, for the first time in 2008. All I knew about it is was that it is grown in Jersey as food for the gorillas in Durrell zoo.

I bought a single plant from a farmers market at Coustellet in the Luberon, from organic growers, Rachel and Frederic Smets and their “jardin de nos grands-meres…” who specialise in ancient or forgotten varieties which they grow on their farm near Bonnieux . Their stall was packed with exotic looking plants for the potager many of which I did know but one, the Morelle De Balbis, stood out as I had no idea what it was so I had to buy one to plant to see what it would become.

It turned out what I bought was Solanum Sisymbriifolium or Litchi Tomato. Litchi Tomato is a fairly rare Solanum producing lovely white flowers followed by 4-5cm red fruits enclosed in a prickly husk. The husk splits open when the fruit is ripe.

It is quite an unpleasant plant really. It grows to rather large proportions, I did not know to expect but I thought it would grow something like a tomato but what I got was a monster over 8ft tall that crowded out a good 16ft square of its raised bed.  Not only is it huge but it is covered with the most vicious spines. I tied it up, cut it back but it still managed to get me every time I passed it. I can forgive any plant for horrible growth habbits if it tastes good but I really found the fruit of this plant disappointing.

The fruit are almost heart shaped with a little point and have a smooth red skin, which is strong but not tough, and yellow juicy flesh. The taste is not mind blowing, it is neither sour or sweet. Seed sellers say that the fruit are acidic with the taste of a Litchi but I didn’t find the ones from my plant had very much taste at all. Baker Creek reckon they taste ‘like a cherry crossed with a tomato’ – but to me they don’t taste much like either.  They have an insipid flavour. Of course I have tasted only the fruit from a single plant so it is hardly a fair assessment. The fruit can apparently be eaten raw or cooked and are used to make sauces and jams. I did not try cooking them perhaps more flavour could be got by boiling them with sugar.

The fruit are impossible, well nothing is impossible but they are painful to pick until they are ripe. Once ripe the spiky casings pull right back and the red fruit are exposed and can just be plucked without much injury. Clever really.

These plants come from the tropical regions of South America and are not frost hardy. Best grown like tomatoes. Sow in heat in early spring and plant out after the last frost. Matures in over 90 days from transplant so may need a long warm season climate.

Seed Saving
I think the best way is like you would save seeds for an aubergine:  to pulp the fruit with plenty of water, in a large glass, rinsing and draining off all floating debris then collect the seeds that have sank to the bottom of the glass. Spread out on a plate to dry.

Would I grow this again?
Well maybe but I’d have to put it somewhere where it won’t be a danger, not near paths or bed edges so it can grow as it likes without spiking me or anyone else. What is does have going for it though is that it is tough and resilient, it will stand heat and drought which for me is important. My second gardening year here was hit by drought. No rains from September to September meant that I lost a lot of crops and that is one of the reasons why I am so keen to experiment with growing a wide range of food crops and particularly ones that will crop without water

Seed Sources
I’ll have some seeds left to share if anyone wants some seeds or they can be bought from

Le Potager d’un Curieux
Ferme de Saintemarthe, France
Unusual Edible Plants & Herbs, UK
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, USA

Other Sources of Info
Le solanum sisymbrifolium
A la découverte de la morelle de Balbis (Solanum sisymbriifolium)

Posted collated from 3 posts 30/4/2008, 24/8/2008, 15/10/2008:

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