Friday, 28 September 2012

Growing Horseradish

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is in the brassica family, which includes turnips, kale, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, daikon radish and many other plants with varying degrees of pungency and a similar taste. Native to the temperate regions of Europe and Asia, this an ancient herb grown for its pungent roots and is a very easy-to-grow perennial.

Even though you dig up the plant to harvest the roots each year, new plants can (and will) return in the spring from any small pieces of root still in the ground. It is so prolific, it can get out of control if you are not careful, a good reason to grow it in pots!

Though horseradish is used sparingly due to its strong hot flavor, it does add some nutritional benefits to your food. Lots of vitamin C, potassium, calcium and magnesium to name a few. When ground, the root produces isothiocyanates, chemical compounds that are studied for their anti-cancer properties.

It's leaves are fabulous as peppery salad greens too, but the true value of this plant is in the wonderful horseradish root sauce that you can produce. The roots are chopped, grated or minced, and usually mixed with vinegar, bottled and then used as a condiment. The stuff you buy in the store doesn't even compare! Makes the best horseradish crusted salmon!

How to get started

For best results start with a selection of root cuttings from a reputable grower, or from a garden centre or gardening catalogue. Organic gardeners all over the world will share horseradish roots to get people started. If you know anyone with a horseradish plant already, these can be great sources for your 'starter' root. 

When to plant horseradish

If you are going to grow your horseradish in the garden rather than a pot, choose a sunny location and allow for at least 18 to 20 inches between plants. They will get to around 3 feet in height as well. With very large leaves, which can shade out most other plants grown nearby. Thankfully, they also shade out most of the weeds.

Planting should be done as soon as your ground is thawed enough to dig. You’ll want to dig down at least twice as deep as your piece of horseradish root is long to provide loose soil for the long taproot.

Purchased roots for starting horseradish usually have a square cut at the bottom and a slanted cut at the top, so you can tell which way is up. Bury the root standing “upright” with the slanted cut at the top, just above the soil level. If you buy a root without any clear top to it, you’re better off planting the root horizontally just a few inches under the soil and let the plant figure it out.

Keep the soil moist until you start to see sprouts coming up. Continue regular watering to keep the soil moist until the plant has developed several sets of leaves. Then it should be fine with just rainfall on its own.
Though horseradish will thrive even when neglected, you can help your plants out with a mid-summer application of a low-nitrogen fertilizer. A standard formula will promote too much leaf growth at the expense of the roots.

While the plants are growing, you can actually pick a few of the young leaves and add them to salads. They can be kind of spicy, so only try a few. Later in the season, your plants may go to flower. Horseradish blooms are small, white and not particularly showy. They won’t harm your future root harvest so don’t feel you have to cut them off like with many other herbs.

Horseradish is in the same family as broccoli and cabbage, so be prepared for the same host of insect pests as you find with these other vegetables. In particular, keep an eye out for cabbage worms. They are the larvae of a white butterfly that will lay its eggs on the leaves. They prefer cabbage but will be happy to feast on your horseradish if it’s nearby. Look for slim green caterpillars, and pick them off immediately.

Because horseradish can spread mercilessly through your garden, many people prefer to grow it in containers. You will need a very large pot to allow your plant to really thrive. A 20 gallon pot, or even a half-barrel is the best. Make sure there is good drainage and plenty of holes in the bottom.

Harvesting horseradish

You can either harvest your horseradish in the autumn after the first hard frost has killed back the top portions of the plant, or in the early spring just before new sprouts form. The root flavor intensifies quite a bit after a frost but if you prefer milder horseradish, then harvest a bit earlier.
Gently dig up your plants and cut away all the thick roots. To start new plants for the next year, leave one or two pieces in the soil. This will work fine to start new plants even if you are harvesting in the fall.

Quite often, you will have new plants spring up even if you don’t intend it. If you really don’t want any more horseradish plants, you will have to thoroughly dig the soil to remove all the pieces of roots.

Preparing horseradish

Once you grate horseradish root, it will soon start to turn dark unless you mix with vinegar. Once vinegar is added (usually referred to as prepared horseradish at this point), you can store it in the fridge for 6 weeks.
When you grate your horseradish, do it somewhere well-ventilated. The fumes are very potent can will burn your eyes and nose. Best to keep a window open if you can.

For later use, you can store the whole roots for about 3 months in a container with damp sand. It’s not really the most practical method but horseradish needs to be kept moist. Or you can freeze it once grated. The whole root doesn’t freeze well.
The longer you store your horseradish roots, the less flavorful they will be. That goes for prepared horseradish as well.

Further reading


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Garlic Growing

Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of the easiest and most satisfying crops you can grow. If you're a beginner, or have a limited amount of space, garlic is the thing for you. It's also an excellent companion plant for fruit trees, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes), brassicas (cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli) and carrots. Reputed to repel slugs, aphids, carrot fly and cabbage worm. An all round miracle crop to have in your garden! 

Buy good stock

For best results start with a head of garlic bought from a reputable grower, or from a garden centre or gardening catalogue.

There are many varieties available, so experiment and try growing at least three or four to find those which you prefer and which do best in your local conditions. We use Purple stripe garlic mostly for its beautiful flavour and ease of growing. Some other good varieties to try include:

  • Creole red garlic (hardnecked)
  • Purple stripe garlic (hardnecked)
  • Solent wight garlic (softnecked)

It is not a good idea to use garlic bought in a supermarket as these are usually varieties for growing in warmer climes, and are often inferior to the robust 'home grown' varieties. 
When to plant garlic

Traditionally garlic is planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest day of the year - I've personally found December to be fine for planting, but in most years it takes until mid-July for the heads to be ready for lifting. Garlic doesn't need a very rich soil, but does prefer a free draining soil - if yours is heavy dig in some sand or plenty of organic matter like compost before planting.

Break the head into individual cloves, and plant these about 2 inches deep, 6 inches apart, in rows 6 inches apart (i.e. squares). For some of the jumbo varieties you'll need to increase this spacing, but for your standard garlic this will be fine.

Plant with the flat end down the way - the new green shoot will emerge from the pointy end (a horticultural term) and by spring you'll have a good few inches of growth. If you are troubled by crows or pigeons you may wish to net your newly planted cloves as I do, as the birds may lift them just for fun.

Garlic also makes a perfect container plant. Make sure there is enough drainage, and a little growing room around each bulb, and you'll have pots of delicious garlic the following summer.

Otherwise garlic takes very little looking after. Keep weeds down, and water in extended dry spells.

Harvesting garlic

You'll know when the garlic is ready to lift because the tops turn yellow and start to dry out. Once more than half of your crop has done this lift them all gently with a fork, remove any excess soil from the hairy roots and leave them somewhere to dry thoroughly - hanging them inside or out in a sheltered spot is the best way.

Once they are dried you can plait them into braided lengths and store them just about anywhere that isn't too moist or warm. Remember to keep some of the fattest cloves to plant next year - you need never buy supermarket garlic again.

Further reading


Monday, 17 September 2012

Kiwi in Zone 8!

Kiwi's in the UK? Well, here's hoping for some vigorous growth and fruiting, at the very least, some wonderful learning and experimentation. I planted this new Kiwi plant (Actinidia deliciosa) out in July into a large, deep container of store bought compost, the plant grew really well and twirled its way up and beyond the stakes I'd placed for it. Being a hardy climber, it was clear I hadnt estimated the pot size and supporting structure correctly!

In this last few months she(?), he(?) quickly outgrew the first support structure, so it was time to move to a larger and more appropriate container with a sturdy, more permanent support. I built a planter and a trellis specifically for the job, and transplanted in mid September.

By next morning the neighbour cats had been in the planter scratching and snapped one of the vines clean off! Being ever resourceful, I cut that whole vine off and snipped it into shorter 6 inch pieces and put a couple directly into the raised bed,  another under a plastic container into a different planter, and yet another I let stand in a jar of water in the house.

First experiment so soon! I'll see if I get any success rooting any of these pieces, and if they do, which method works best.

Normally a male and a female plant are required to set fruit, I dont know yet which variety I have until its starts to flower. The ratio for producing a good crop is generally 1 male to four female, but my 'small holding' will only be supporting one of each. Once I discover which mine is, I'll get one of the opposite sex!

Kiwi is best grown in full sun and well drained soil, so far it seems pretty happy against the house, growing in a pot. I also planted a couple of strawberry plants in the planter as an under storey, and will see how these two get along.

This is the trellis I built, waiting to get fixed to the wall. I re-used old roofers slats taken down from a structure in the garden, painted it up to match the planter, and now need to affix it in place. Photos and instructions coming soon!

Online resources + information

Here's a great article on Kiwi growing and pruning.
Gorgeous Chocolate Kiwi popsicle recipe.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Growing Asparagus

dinky asparagus spear peeping out!
Asparagus (asparagus officinalis) is a spring vegetable, a flowering perennial and part of the Lily family, similar to its Allium cousins, onions and garlic. Native to most of Europe, it benefits any garden by being one of the earliest vegetables to crop in the Spring!

When planning to grow asparagus, it pays to prepare the bed and the location well, as a poorly prepared asparagus bed will produce a scant harvest! When determining the ideal growing conditions, one only needs to observe nature. Asparagus grows wild and favours slightly salty (coastal) regions - which can difficult when trying to identify suitable companions - although both parsley and rosemary are thought to be good companions - not many plants like this kind of salty soil structure. As well as difficult suitors, these penickity vegetables also cultivate patience, as the vegetable has a three year pre-amble before the grower is able to harvest fully!

All this said, there's nothing quite like walking out to the garden and cutting fresh asparagus for breakfast!

birdsong and coffee a la miniature!

I finally decided to get my asparagus started last year. Although my own back yard is not anything close to asparagus friendly, I started with both seeds and seedlings, sowing into large pots and containers, which I planned to transplant this season. Hence, sneaking a year forward in that 'three year' growing requirement for new asparagus patches.

The first year saw fairly strong, and rather cute asparagus spears grow and lots of feathery ferns. They were very tempting to harvest, but to promote healthy crowns, it is advisable to not harvest until the third year. So, they were allowed to dieback over the winter. And have appeared again this year, some fairing better than others, but all now in their second year and ready to transplant into a new garden.

Although asparagus is commonly believed to be difficult to plant and cultivate in a regular suburban kitchen garden, I thought that I would get the ball rolling and start planting this year. The spears (in the first picture above) are first year seedlings - it takes three years before full harvesting can take place. I've been wanting to grow my own ever since tasting the wild asparagus I discovered with a friend while wandering the hills of the Okanagan in British Columbia. Those skinny spears melted in our mouths when we ate them later at her place overlooking Okanagan Lake that evening.

If planning to grow asparagus, start by getting familiar with do's and dont's on the internet: Vegetable Gardening Online

Once ready to start your own, an excellent book that provides everything you need for growing is Grow the Best Asparagus (Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin)

So, even though my current garden is a tiny asparagus unfriendly location, I'm glad I decided to start last year, as now I'm in my second year and will be harvesting like crazy next year!

Year two
The plants have taken well in their various containers and planting spaces, I've now moved house and have a bigger garden so I'm carefully transplanting to larger raised beds and into terraced growing spaces at the top of the garden. I've resisted the urge to 'harvest' this year, although some of those tender little shoots have beed especially difficult to ignore! Of the twenty or so plants I put in (a mix of seeds and seedlings) I have had approx 80 percent success rate this year - only a couple have not thrown out little asparagus spears. But, I have rescued the root crowns and planted out, so will wait to see if they make an appearance in year three!

Further reading + resources


Monday, 10 September 2012

Goji Berries

Planting Diary - September 2012
The back fence along the top of the garden seemed like an ideal spot to transplant my Goji Berry (Lycium barbarum)If you’re not familiar with the Goji berry, it is an exotic berry originating in the temperate and subtropical regions in China, Mongolia and in the Himalayas in Tibet. It’s a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants, which also includes tomato, potato, eggplant, chilli peppers, capsicum, tobacco, petunias and many others. 

Goji berries like sandy soil, as it well draining, and they dislike “wet feet”, that is waterlogged or constantly wet soil. They will grow to tall thin shrubs that are over 3m tall, and they will only begin fruiting once they are 2 years old and will produce heavy crops in the 4th to 5th year. Plant them in full sun for the highest berry yields.

My fence runs north east/south west so the location benefits from full/partial sun most of the day. The fence is also raised on a terrace which is a good three feet  above the rest of the garden, so also benefits from well drained soil. The fence is 4ft high, and I'm hoping will offer a stable backdrop to attach the Goji plant to - which grow up to 8ft tall! The plant will also offer an interesting 'screen' from the neighbours during the summer months, while providing both of us with tasty 'superfruits' to nibble on.

Transplanting method

Transplanted September 10th, 2012. I dug a largish hole along the fence line, sprinkled approximately 2oz of bonemeal in the bottom of the hole and mixed with existing soil. After watering really well I left it to soak in while preparing the Goji plant with a good watering too. Carefully removing the Goji plant from its existing pot, I positioned it in the hole and filled back in with remaining soil. Making sure to stamp the soil down which firms in the planting. Watered well once more, and left it to acclimatise to its new location. The transplanted plant is approximately 3ft, so am expecting some die off while the roots become established. I'll probably add supports along the fence to hold it and direct its growth, which its taking hold.

Aside from the 'superfruit' status, the plant is covered in violet flowers in spring/early summer, before the berries appear in summer/autumn. An ornamental climbing shrub, benefitting from being low maintenance and very drought tolerant. It propagates well from cuttings once established. I've added a couple of Saxifrage plants at the base of the goji plant - also drought tolerant - adding some protective evergreen ground cover and a little colour over the winter months when the deciduous plants drops its leaves.