Sweetcorn

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Sweetcorn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa), is a variety of maize with a high sugar content. It is the result of a naturally occurring recessive mutation in the genes which control conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the corn kernel. Unlike field corn varieties, which are harvested when the kernels are dry and mature (dent stage), sweetcorn is picked when immature (milk stage) and prepared and eaten as a vegetable, rather than a grain.

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Ready for pollinating

The cultivation of corn as maize began over 8000 years ago in Mesoamerica, a geographical area which includes central and southern Mexico, and Central America. Corn was first domesticated from teosinte (Zea mexicana), an annual grass native to this region. Wild teosinte mostly has value as a fodder plant, as it provides very little edible seeds. The first archaeological evidence of domesticated corn comes from the San Marcos cave in Tehuacan and the Guilá Naquitz cave in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The corn in San Marcos cave is dated to over 5,000 years ago. The cobs from the Guilá Naquitz cave were dated to over 6200 years old. Humans first domesticated corn by selecting the teosinte plants that had the largest amount of edible seeds until they eventually provided a substantial food source. In the process, humans have transformed corn into a plant that can no longer self-sow and modern corn now requires breaking the tightly bound cob to remove the seeds. Wild teosinte, however, is very fragile and the seeds easily fall off and grow new plants. Without human interaction modern corn would probably cease to exist.

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Tassels – this is where the grainy seeds need to fall to pollinate

The Iroquois, Native American tribes, gave the first recorded sweetcorn, called ‘Papoon’, to European settlers in 1779. It soon became a popular food in southern and central regions of the US. Open pollinated cultivators of white sweetcorn started to become widely available in the US in the 19th century. Two of the most enduring cultivars, still available today, are ‘Country Gentleman’and ‘Stowell’s Evergreen’. Sweetcorn production in the 20th century was influenced by the following key developments: hybridisation allowed for more uniform maturity, improved quality and disease resistance, and, in 1933 ‘Golden Cross Bantam’ was released. It is significant for being the first successful single-cross hybrid and the first specifically developed for disease resistance. Open pollinated (non-hybrid) corn has largely been replaced in the commercial market by sweeter, earlier hybrids, which also have the advantage of maintaining their sweet flavour longer.

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Grainy seed tops

There are different varieties of sweetcorn – old types and supersweet types as well as mini types. Choose only one variety or they cross pollinate and make a gross hybrid that you don’t want.

I’ve only grown ‘Swift F1’ – and it is brilliant.

Sow in pots as early as March or as late as May, indoors. I use tall yoghurt pots filled with compost. Keep them in warm temperatures to grow with plenty of water and sunlight. Plant them out when they are about 7cm tall and the frosts have most definitely passed, May or June, 30cm apart. Sweetcorn is wind pollinated so plant them in clustered groups (picture the fields of corn grown on the country farms around Britain, all packed together) rather than rows to maximise pollination. Plant in soil that has been prepared with compost and well-rotted manure. I keep feeding mine with Blood, Fish and Bone and well-rotted manure or a liquid feed throughout the season to encourage the growth of the corn itself. Keep well watered in any dry periods. To increase pollination, try brushing the dusty pollen off the tops of the sweetcorn onto the tassels – this is where the corn will grow if pollinated. The tassels on the plant will turn yellow if fertilised. The cobs are ready when the tassels turn dark brown, July-September. To check, peel back the green covering and pierce a thumbnail into one of the niblets – if the liquid that is released is milky, your sweetcorn is ready. If it is clear, leave if a little longer but check daily.

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Undeveloped corn on the cobs – I’ve never taken a picture when they actually looked like ones bought in the shop, only the odd looking ones here 😦

The aim is to harvest sweetcorn in its prime. The sugars convert to starches rapidly once the corn leaves the plant and the taste will only become poorer as time goes on – same for asparagus and peas. Have the pan of boiling water ready, pick and plunge your cobs straight in. Or freeze them immediately (it stops the sugar/starch conversion process).

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Tassels dying back – the corn is forming

The only problems with sweetcorn are they take up space, they might not pollinate as reliably as insect pollinated plants (it will be very weather dependent) and if you have a problem with mice you might need to consider some protection.

For companion planting, consider the ‘Three Sisters’ from the USA: sweetcorn, beans and pumpkins. My first year I grew pumpkins with the sweetcorn. Last year I grew lettuces and radishes between them. This year I am considering a variety of cucurbits because they both enjoy the sunny conditions – courgettes, pumpkins and squashes, that is.

To cook and eat sweetcorn: it can of course become ‘corn on the cob’ – boil, grill or barbecue and slather in butter and hand them out for people to chew off the little gold nuggets. To remove the kernels from the cob, boil for a few minutes in boiling water (don’t add salt, it hardens the kernels), get a sharp knife and scrape them off into a bowl and serve. They are lovely with any meal that includes boiled veg, salads, mixed with tuna and mayonnaise is a traditional one, delicious with peas and baked potatoes mashed with butter, they are a traditional vegetarian option for the barbecue – try spreading some chill sauce over the top after grilling for a spicy taste. I think they are delicious also in a stir fry and a great addition to Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock. I offer you the other recipe that springs to mind when I picture sweetcorn – my mum’s sweetcorn fritters.

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Sweetcorn Fritters 

(Makes enough to serve 4 people a few each)

-260g fresh sweetcorn (if you are using bought canned, use a 325g tin) -100g gram flour (or plain flour, gram flour is made from chickpeas and adds extra protein) -3 eggs -120g cheddar cheese -80g Gruye cheese -50g grated courgette or 1tbsp milk, optional -Small knob of butter, for frying

  1. Scald the fresh sweetcorn so the corn comes off the cob easier. If you are using tinned sweetcorn, drain it and set to one side.
  2. In a large bowl, sieve in the flour. Make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and stir them into the flour to make a batter.
  3. Grate the cheese and mix it in. Ass the corn and either a little courgette or milk to make it a dropping consistency, only a little though.
  4. Warm up the butter in a frying pan and drop spoonfuls of the batter into it – four per frying pan. Fry on one side and then flip over, using a spatula, and fry on the other side. Press down on the batter – when it is no longer leaking liquid, it is cooked through. Place on a plate lined with kitchen roll. Serve with vegetables, salad, rice, potatoes, dips… ketchup?

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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 “The Art of Cooking” 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’s 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 “red as a beet.” 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 “earthy” taste, which isn’t 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’s 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. ‘Even when I was feeling really ill, I made sure I nailed eight beetroots a day,’ 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’t 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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April sowing list

You can still sow most of the vegetables I have mentioned in previous months (e.g. radishes, spinach, lettuce, courgettes, spring onions…) but here are some new ones that you have to wait until April for:

Runner-Beans – Firestorm, St George, Borlotti, Cobra, Wisley Magic, Desiree, Moonlight

French Beans – Monte Cristo, Cobra, Maxi, Dulcina, Speedy, Delinel

Squashes – Butternut squash (try Hawk), Honey Bear, Sunburst

Soya Beans – Elenor

Crystal Apple Cucumbers 

Cucamelons 

Sweetcorn – Swift (These could have been started indoors last month, I still have yet to sow mine…)

Cabbages

Parsnips – Gladiator

Asparagus 

Potatoes 

Jerusalem Artichokes 

Globe Artichokes 

Look at my other previous monthly posts for more ideas of what seeds to sow! 

 

Peas

The pea is most commonly the small spherical seed or the seed-pod of the pod fruit Pisum sativum.  Pea pods are botanically fruit since they contain seeds and developed from the ovary of a (pea) flower. It is a cool-season crop grown in many parts of the world; planting can take place from winter to early summer depending on location.

In early times, peas were grown mostly for their dry seeds. The wild pea is restricted to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. The earliest archaeological finds of peas date from the late neolithic era of current Greece, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. In Egypt, early finds date from ca. 4800–4400 BC in the Nile delta area, and from ca. 3800–3600 BC in Upper Egypt. The pea was also present in Georgia in the 5th millennium BC. Farther east, the finds are younger. Peas were present in Afghanistan ca. 2000 BC, in Harappa, Pakistan and in northwest India in 2250–1750 BC. In the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, this crop appears in the Ganges Basin and southern India. From plants growing wild in the Mediterranean basin, constant selection since the Neolithic Dawn of agriculture improved their yield. In the early 3rd century BC Theophrasturous mentions peas among the pulses that are sown late in the winter because of their tenderness. In the first century AD Columella mentions them in De re rustica when Roman legionaries still gathered wild peas to supplement their rations.

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In the Middle Ages, field peas are constantly mentioned, as they were the staple that kept famine at bay. Charles the Good, count of Flanders, noted this in 1124. Green “garden” peas, eaten immature and fresh, were an innovative luxury of Early Modern Europe. In England, the distinction between “field peas” and “garden peas” dates from the early 17th century. Along with broad beans and lentils, peas formed an important part of the diet of most people in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it had become popular to eat peas “green”, that is, while they are immature and right after they are picked. New cultivars of peas were developed by the English during this time, which became known as “garden” or “English” peas. The popularity of green peas spread to North America.  Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 cultivars of peas on his estate. With the invention of canning and freezing of foods, green peas became available year-round, and not just in the spring as before.

Sugar peas which the French soon called mange-tout, for they were consumed pods and all, were introduced to France from the market gardens of Holland in the time of Henri IV, through the French ambassador. Green peas were introduced from Genoa to the court of Louis XIV in January 1660, with some staged fanfare: a hamper of them were presented before the King and were shelled by a comte. Little dishes of peas were then presented to the King, the Queen, Cardinal Mazarin and Monsieur, the king’s brother.Immediately established and grown for earliness warmed with manure and protected under-glass, they were still a luxurious delicacy in 1696. Modern split-peas with their indigestible skins removed are a development of the later 19th century: pea-soup, pease pudding, Indian matar ki daal or versions of chana masala, or Greek fava.

In 2005, a poll of 2,000 people revealed the pea to be Britain’s seventh favourite culinary vegetable. The annual ‘Peasenhall Pea Festival’ in the English village of Peasenhall, Suffolk attracts hundreds of visitors every year, with events such as Pea Shooting, the World Pea Podding Championships and National Pea Eating competition. In 2012, the Pea Festival had an OlymPEAn theme, celebrating the London 2012 Olympics.

Peas do take a little bit of time. They need support while growing and podding takes time – this is after managing to get them to germinate, survive slugs and snails and then to actually develop peas inside the pods. However, homegrown peas are incredible. They are so much sweeter and smaller than any you will ever buy in the shop. You want to eat them as soon as they are harvested (the speed of conversion of their sugars to starches means that every second ruins them, like sweetcorn or asparagus). When young and tender and fresh from the first harvest, eat them raw straight from the pods. Otherwise, heat them very briefly in a pan of boiling water for a minute or two, drain and serve. Or, pop them straight from their pods into the freezer asap. A dream of mine is to have a surplus of peas to freeze like our runner-beans – unfortunately, hasn’t happened… yet?

The side shoots and growth tips, pea tips, or ‘green gold’ in Japan, are also edible and make a good addition to any salad. However, you will end up with fewer pods if you pick them but if you have lots of plants then go ahead!

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‘Meteor’ – Sow February-June, October-November

Sow March -June : ‘Sugar-Ann’, ‘Deliket’, ‘Alderman’, ‘Kelvedon Wonder’,

‘Ambassador’- Sow March-July

I learnt the hard way the first year I tried growing peas that they just don’t germinate in sandy soil, or if they do, they quickly become snail and slug fodder. One night, we went out with torches and saw basically a live trapeze act of slugs and snails crawling up peas. From then on it was military protection from creepy crawlies!

Last year we started them off indoors in toilet rolls in giant seed trays filled with compost, like sweet pea sowings. They did really well, all germinating just fine and producing a good crop – I just needed to make more successional sowings to get more, that would be my advice. However, the toiled rolls are rather exhausting and rot when the peas can’t be planted outdoors for a long time because of rubbish weather… So we started using normal plastic containers, old fruit cartons etc., filled with compost and they worked just fine (peas do have long, straggly roots so be cautious and delicate when planting out). So: sow indoors and when about 10-15cm tall plant them out under fleece until the frosts vanish, 10 cm apart, rows 75cm apart. Make sure they are in a trench with well-rotted matter. I have read before to avoid using manure but I really do think that it is the magic medicine for all plants, even the carrots (which are meant to fork) and alliums (which are meant to bolt). It really seems to help so I would try out working in some well-rotted manure with lots of compost and mulch into the earth where you are going to plant your peas. Use hazel prunings or other similar sticks to support the peas – thrust the fat end of the sticks into the soil to hold them upright so the tendrils have something to grab onto. Don’t let them dry out and the occasional comfrey feed can work wonders. For the permacultural lot, try growing radishes and salad leaves between the peas (chicory, spinach, wrinkle crinkle cress and poached egg plants did very well between ours last year). Many can be harvested May-October, depending when sown, averagely around 2 months after sowing. Check by the size of the bumps in the pods – pick them at their peaks.

Other than slugs and snails, mice and birds can be a problem. Put them under cover if this starts to become an issue. Caterpillars of pea moths could be a problem. Blight, powdery mildew, rust or other rotting diseases can also become an issue, weakening and ruining a crop.

Peas are starchy, but high in fibre, protein, vitamins A, B6, C, K, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc and lutein. Dry weight is about one-quarter protein and one-quarter sugar. Peas are stuffed with all sorts of antioxidants that help improve overall health, as well as help prevent cancer. These actively seek out and neutralize free radicals that are roaming around the body, which, studies have shown, are partially responsible for causing cancer. Peas are thought to be a heart healthy food. Their high dietary fiber content helps reduce bad LDL cholesterol in the heart. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties that help regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system. There is also a good amount of ALA fat found in peas (one of the Omega-3 fatty acids), which has been shown to promote heart health. The high protein and fiber levels also help keep blood sugar levels in check. Both of these work to regulate the rate at which food is digested. Dietary fibre has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

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Eat raw peas with any spring/summer salad – think boiled early new potatoes, butter and cut chives with a fresh bunch of salad leaves straight from the plot outside under the blue sky. Try them boiled alongside any cooked meal – sausages or chops and mash, weekend roasts etc. Peas go with nearly everything. Here are a few of my favourites: baked potato, butter, grated cheddar cheese and peas (perhaps with baked beans as well),Updated recipe: homemade pizza and peas (optionally with baked potato and butter as well), lasagne and peas, macaroni cheese and peas, Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, pasta, tinned tomatoes, rocket, cheese and pine nuts with peas (Salad – Rocket), Matar Paneer is my all-time favourite curry, literally translates as peas and paneer cheese curry (Cucumbers), just rice, tinned tomatoes and peas is yummy.

Another recipe? How about a risotto?

Pea Risotto

(Serves 4)

-25g butter – 1 onion, sliced – 325g rice – Salt and pepper, for seasoning -750ml/1-pint vegetable stock or 2tsp Bouillon powder, dissolved in ½L of boiling water -300g peas –More cooked vegetables, to serve (optional) – Parmesan cheese, to serve (optional)

  1. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the onion and fry gently over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down a little.
  2. Add the rice and a grinding of salt and pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the butter.
  3. Add the stock after frying the rice like a pilau for a couple of minutes, bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Turn the heat down once the stock is bubbling and leave to simmer until almost all of the stock has been absorbed. Add the peas, cover, and leave to simmer for 6-10 minutes.
  5. Serve with cooked vegetables and parmesan cheese, if desired.

For a stock recipe, see: Egg Drop Soup with Vegetable Stock, vegetarian. 

 

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Sweet Potatoes

It will never work… but I bought two Sweet Potatoes to ‘chit’… then we used one for supper because we decided a) it won’t work, they are too difficult to chit and then keep alive in England and b) if it DID work, we didn’t want that many! They were giant… 

Sweet Potatoes are famously difficult to grow in England because of our bad weather in comparison to South America or Africa where they thrive. We should really stick to our normal potatoes, which is fine by me because I think they go with more meals, but it is fun to try out these new vegetables. Despite its name and look, sweet potatoes are nothing like potatoes. They taste different, are from a different family etc. They are a completely different vegetable hence why we decided we might as well give it a go and try growing one despite the odds being pretty much stacked against us! If you buy your sweet potatoes to grow properly online (which is probably better than me getting one from the market, this process has a very poor succession report) then they will arrive often as plug-plants to make things easier. Read on to find out some interesting history, nutrition and how to grow facts about sweet potatoes, as well as a yummy recipe at the bottom… 

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Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the morning glory family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root are a root vegetable. They are also known as yams (although the soft, orange sweet potato is often called a “yam” in parts of North America, the sweet potato is botanically very distinct from a genuine yam (Dioscorea), which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae), or kumara. Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to potatoes, they aren’t from the same ‘family’ but that family is part of the same taxonomic order as sweet potatoes, the Solanales. Although the sweet potato is not closely related botanically to the common potato, they have a shared etymology. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later explorers found many cultivars under an assortment of local names, but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of batata. The Spanish combined this with the Quechua word for potato, papa, to create the word patata for the common potato. The first record of the name “sweet potato” is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1775.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial vine. It bears alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves (sometimes eaten as a green) and medium-sized flowers. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin. The colour ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Sweet potato cultivars with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with red, pink or orange flesh.

The origin and domestication of sweet potato is thought to be in either Central America or South America. In Central America, sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, Peruvian sweet potato remnants dating as far back as 8000 BC have been found. The sweet potato was grown in Polynesia before western exploration. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia around 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there. Sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions wherever there is sufficient water to support their growth. Due to a major crop failure, sweet potatoes were introduced to China in about 1594. The growing of sweet potatoes was encouraged by the Governor Chin Hsüeh-tseng (Jin Xuezeng). Sweet potatoes were introduced as a food crop in Japan, and by 1735 was planted in Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s private garden. It was also introduced to Korea in 1764. Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. They are featured in many favorite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Uganda (the second largest grower after China), Rwanda, and some other African countries also grow a large crop which is an important part of their peoples’ diets. The New World, the original home of the sweet potato, grows less than three percent (3%) of the world’s supply. Europe has only a very small sweet potato production, mainly in Portugal.

The plant does not tolerate frost. It grows best at an average temperature of 24 °C, abundant sunshine and warm nights. Not really suited to the UK. Annual rainfalls of 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) are considered most suitable, with a minimum of 500 mm (20 in) in the growing season. The crop is sensitive to drought at the tuber initiation stage 50–60 days after planting, and it is not tolerant to water-logging, as it may cause tuber rots and reduce growth of storage roots if aeration is poor.

Unlike normal potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from ‘slips’. These are the long shoots that have been removed from ‘chitted’ sweet potato tubers. ‘Slips’ don’t have roots, although sometimes there are signs of small roots beginning to appear. The roots will grow once the ‘slip’ has been planted. Whilst it is possible to grow your own ‘slips’ from supermarket sweet potatoes, most supermarket varieties are not sufficiently hardy to grow well in the UK so crops are likely to be disappointing.

When they arrive the ‘Slips’ will look withered, but place them in a glass of water overnight and they will quickly recover. The next day you can plant them up individually into small pots of multi-purpose compost. When planting sweet potato slips, it’s important to cover the whole length of the stem, so that it is covered right up to the base of the leaves. Sweet potato plants are not hardy so you will need to grow them on in warm, frost free conditions for 3 weeks or more until they are established. Warm, humid conditions will quickly encourage the slips to produce roots. They will most likely need to be grown completely inside a greenhouse in the UK climate in large pots filled with good compost and lots of feeding. Sweet potatoes have a vigorous growth habit and long sprawling stems. In the greenhouse it may be useful to train the stems onto strings or trellis to keep them tidier.

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

‘T65’ – its red skins contrast nicely with the creamy, white flesh.

‘Beauregard Improved’ – a best selling variety, producing smaller tubers with a lovely salmon-orange flesh.

‘O Henry’ – richly flavoured, has a slightly different, bushier habit than other varieties and produces it’s tubers in a cluster which makes for easier harvesting.

Sweet potatoes can be used soon after harvesting, but they will store well for several months if the skins are cured properly. Lay them out in the sun for a few hours immediately after harvesting and then move them to a warm, humid place for 10 days – a greenhouse is ideal. Once the skins have cured they can be stored in cooler conditions provided that they are kept dry. In late summer, approximately 12 to 16 weeks after planting, the foliage and stems start to turn yellow and die back. Now is the time to start harvesting sweet potatoes, although they can be left longer if you prefer larger tubers. If outdoor grown, lift them before the frosts or they will be damaged.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). They are also a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. Additionally, they are a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and phosphorus.

Sweet potatoes can replace a normal potato in any recipe, but they do have a slightly sweeter taste so some things might not go with it as much (I can’t quite picture my all-time favourite baked potato and baked beans being quite the same with the sweet potato). I’ve had sweet potato stews that were yummy, curried sweet potato recipes are out there, sweet potato salads, baked and stuffed with humous, tofu, lentils, coronation chicken, ham, bacon, eggs. We’ve seen the sweet potato brownies and muffins and breads (have not tried any of these, I must admit). I like them boiled with greens and cheddar cheese – they go very well with cheese. In fact, the best meal that includes sweet potato that I have had is Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Cheese. Now that is a good combination. And here is a recipe:

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large broccoli

For the cheese sauce: 

  • 7g butter
  • 1/2-1tbsp plain flour
  • 300g-400g grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rinse and cut up the cauliflower into pieces. Peel and cut up the sweet potato into small chunks. Put both in the pan of water and reduce the heat to low. Boil for 5 minutes before rinsing and cutting up the broccoli and adding it. Boil for about another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are cooked.
  2. To make the cheese sauce: Put the butter in a saucepan over a high heat to melt. Add the flour, stirring. Take off the heat and stir until combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring. Warm it up over a high flame, stirring. Wait until it bubbles, then turn it down and let it simmer, so it is a thick sauce. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until dissolved.
  3. Turn the grill onto high or the oven to about 180C.
  4. In a large ovenproof dish, scrape the drained vegetables into the bottom and scrape the cheese sauce over the top. Scatter extra grated cheddar on top, if you would like to have a crispy topping. Place under the grill or in the oven and cook until it is brown on top (it will be a few minutes under the grill, longer in the oven).
  5. Serve hot, with more vegetables like peas or runner beans if you would like.

My other favourite variation is Cauliflower-Potato-Courgette-Broccoli-Cheese. Yum. 

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Brussels Sprouts

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Sow: February-April

Harvest: October-April

Brussels Sprouts are members of the Gemmifera Group of cabbages, Brassica oleracea, grown for its edible buds. They look like mini-cabbages and taste like slightly stronger versions. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, and may have originated and gained its name there.

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‘Maximus’

Forerunners to modern Brussels sprouts were likely cultivated in Ancient Rome. Although native to the Mediterranean region with other cabbage species, Brussels sprouts first appeared in northern Europe during the 5th century, later being cultivated in the 13th century near Brussels from which they supposedly derived their name. The French coined the title in the 18th century. It was common to put a landmark on a food. Whether they actually were developed in Brussels is not certain but there are records of Brussels Sprouts around where Brussels is as far back as the 13th century. During the 16th century, they enjoyed a popularity in the Southern Netherlands that eventually spread throughout the cooler parts of Northern Europe.

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I grew this year the brilliant ‘Maximus’ which I highly recommend. I sowed it in February and planted it out after the frosts had gone. I did not harvest any until Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the day after but they could be picked from September onwards if you are lucky. I still have a few small ones left to develop that should see us through the winter months.

Other varieties to consider:

‘Noisette’ and ‘Groininger’ are good earlies, pre-Christmas.

‘Seven Hills’ is recommended for the Christmas season.

‘Wellington’ will offer a late winter harvest as will the red coloured ‘Red Rubine’.

Start sprouts off indoors in February in pots of compost, 1.5cm (1/2 inch) deep. Transplant April-June when the plants are big and strong with at least three leaves growing. Plant firmly in a trench with well rotted manure and Blood Fish and Bone mixed in. Space them 60cm apart. Water well – brassicas need hydration. Prop the plants up with sticks, especially as they get bigger. You will want to net them straight away to keep out the pesky Cabbage Whites, and I am afraid you will have to keep the insect netting on them all year round. However, these hardy plants will not need fleecing or any type of frost protection. In fact, they need a little cold to prosper.

Pick the sprouts from the bottom of the plant upwards, the largest ones first, a few at a time. However, don’t ignore the leaves of the actual plant. They make good cut-and-come-again greens and often taste milder than the sprouts themselves. Take a few at a time. Another thing you can do is chop the tops of the plant off. They taste very mild and are like mini-cabbages when boiled.

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Brussels sprouts are rich in many valuable nutrients. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin K. They are a very good source of numerous nutrients including folate, manganese, vitamin B6, dietary fiber, choline, copper, vitamin B1, potassium, phosphorus and omega-3 fatty acids. They are also a good source of iron, vitamin B2, protein, magnesium, pantothenic acid, vitamin A, niacin, calcium and zinc. In addition to these nutrients, Brussels sprouts contain numerous disease-fighting phytochemicals including sulforaphane, indoles, glucosinolates, isothiocynates, coumarins, dithiolthiones and phenols. Brussels are credited with reducing cancer, cardiovascular disease and supporting the dietary system as it contains a good amount of fibre.

Steaming or boiling sprouts should only take about 6 minutes. Cook until just tender. They are of course brilliant with Christmas dinner or any other boiled veg meal (sausages and mash, roasted chicken are such examples) but don’t just reserve them for roast dinners. Shredded bacon mixed with Brussels Sprouts makes a good side dish. Bubble and Squeak is a classic. Chestnuts is another good one to mix in. Melted parmesan cheese on top. I personally like boiled potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce mixed together in the form of a dish – a light, warming continuation of Christmas dinner.

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‘Brukale’ Petite Posy

Brukale

Another veg to consider is Brukale – which I actually prefer to Brussels Sprouts. It is a cross between a Brussels Sprout and a Kale. It is basically mini-kales that grow like Brussels Sprouts. Sow indoors in February (try ‘Petite Posy’ from Mr Fothergills) and plant out along with the Brussels Sprouts. Pick them like you would pick Brussels Sprouts and boil them for slightly less longer. Their taste will be less potent than a sprout.

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Brukale and Brussels Sprouts picked for Christmas lunch 2016
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Boiled Brussels Sprouts
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Boiled Brukale
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Christmas Lunch 2016 – homegrown Brussels Sprouts, Brukale, Potatoes, Carrots, Runner beans and cranberry sauce (unfortunately, roasted parsnips and peas were not, fortunately the sausages, bacon, turkey and homemade stuffing were not too!)

Cranberries

Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the sub-genus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Cranberries are creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 metres (7 ft) long and 5 to 20 centimetres (2 to 8 in) in height. They have wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant. It is initially light green, turning red when it is ripe. It has an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.

Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries (see useful recipe for these below), with the remainder sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry Sauce (see recipe below) is a traditional accompaniment to turkey at Christmas dinner in the UK, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the US.

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Homegrown cranberries, 2016, first year, ‘Pilgrim’ plant

The name cranberry derives from ‘craneberry’, first named by early European settlers in the US who believed the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is mossberry. The traditional English name for cranberries is fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th-century New England cranberries were sometimes called ‘bearberries’ as bears were often seen feeding on them.

American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts. By the beginning of the 18th century, they were being exported to England by the colonists.

Cranberries were used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.

Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated as a commercial crop is an American native, which owes its success to Henry Hall, an gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840 he noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries. Cranberry cultivation spread across the US, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and the UK. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done. The berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck: when an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling. Some of the berries took root and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Today’s cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and spread to a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser levelled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.

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To grow at home: if you can grow rhododendrons or blueberries in your garden soil, cranberries should succeed. Otherwise, grow plants in pots, hanging containers or raised beds in ericaceous compost. Water with rainwater, not ‘hard’ tap water. Compost should be moist at all times, not waterlogged and should never dry out. Peg down or bury long, trailing stems – these will root over time. Feed during the growing season, if growth is poor with a little hoof and horn (15g per sq m) or sulphate of ammonia. Old beds can be revitalised by covering them with a 14mm (½in) layer of sharp sand in spring and working the sand down between the stems.
Propagation: peg down trailing stems from March to June, to encourage rooting.
Little pruning is required, other than to remove any excessively long and congested arching growth in early spring. Trim out straggly roots after harvesting.

Cranberries need organic, rich, moist to boggy acidic soils, ideally at pH 4.5, in an open, sunny site. Although they like constantly moist conditions, plants should sit above the water. Plant in garden soil, providing it is suitable. Alternatively, dig a trench 90cm (36in) wide by 30cm (12in) deep and line it with heavy duty polythene or pond liner, fill it with ericaceous compost for acid loving plants and soak with rainwater before planting or create a raised bed, 30cm (12in) deep. Plant at a spacing of 30cm (12in) in and between the rows in from October to December,  in mild spells in winter or in March and April.

As far as pests are concerned, cranberries are vulnerable to primarily birds. We netted ours as soon as berries appeared this year and fortunately managed to harvest the (few) all (our cranberry bushes were only just planted last season so to get a few berries was pretty wonderful). Harvest from late-September to mid-October, when the berries are red and prise easily from the plant. They can be frozen or eaten straight away. We froze our few this year to add to my dad’s wonderful yearly Christmas creation of Cranberry Sauce for our Christmas Day dinner (see recipe below).

RHS recommended varieties:

‘Pilgrim’: We have two of these. Ideal for container growing, fruits ripen from July to September.

‘Early Black’: Early harvesting, small and deep red; ideal for sauces and for baking.

‘Redstar’: Ideal for window boxes or containers, dark pink flowers are followed by bright red fruits.

‘Stevens’: Mid season with large, red fruit.

Raw cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, fibre and the essential manganese (each nutrient having more than 10% of the Daily Value per 100 g serving, as well as other essential micronutrients in minor amounts). As fresh cranberries are hard and bitter, about 95% of cranberries are processed and used to make cranberry juice and sauce. They are also sold dried and sweetened.

For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it’s not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs (involving A-type linkages between their components) acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids). Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). Drinking a little cranberry juice now and then seems to be a good idea…

So if you don’t fancy your cranberries raw, try making your own cranberry juice (if you have enough to spare), perhaps a Cranberry Sauce instead of Redcurrant Jelly for your roasts (see recipe below) or dry them out like you would to make apple rings and use them in a bread recipe or follow my Christmas Brownie and Walnut Cake recipe and serve them alongside it for a delicious dessert (you don’t have to wait until Christmas for it!).

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Dad’s Cranberry Sauce

(Makes 4x 350g jars)

-900g fresh/frozen cranberries -Juice of 2 oranges -150g granulated sugar

  1. Place the cranberries in a large pan.
  2. Add the juice of the oranges to the pan followed by the sugar.
  3. Bring everything up to simmering point, stir well, put a lid on the pan and let it all simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cranberries are breaking down. Stir now and then.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape into sterilised jam jars. Store in the fridge. For freezing, when cool transfer the relish to a plastic container and freeze.

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Christmas Brownie Walnut Cake with Dried Cranberries
Follow the link to the original recipe on my other blog – ‘Bella’s Baking’

(Serves 10)

-200g plain chocolate- 100g salted butter -4 medium sized eggs -250g caster/granulated sugar -100g plain flour -1tsp baking powder -30g cocoa powder -100g walnuts, ground

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23cm/9inch cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Melt the butter and add to the chocolate mixture.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold a trail when the beaters are removed. Mix in the chocolate and butter mixture.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder, mixing to combine.
  5. In a food processor or nut grinder, grind the walnuts. Mix into the other ingredients thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake has a nice crust on the outside but is slightly soft in the middle. When you cut into it to serve, it should gradually get gooey-er as you go further into the middle, the brownie element of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin.
  7. Dust with icing sugar and scatter dried cranberries in the middle for decoration. Serve these cranberries alongside the slices. Store in an airtight container.
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