Polytunnels are another big step to self- sufficiency. With our two pigs, three cows, 11 sheep, five chickens and two guinea fowl we are more than self-sufficient in meat but definitely less so with veg. I have resisted a polytunnel for the last 36 years on aesthetic grounds but finally have decided to embrace one as, a) I love growing things and b) I want to try and provide a weekly veg box for my time-pressed children who live nearby.
Early crops, more salads through the winter, protection from certain pests and a calmer environment for growing in our increasingly erratic climate are a huge bonus. I’ve worked in many polytunnels over the years, and been aware of some drawbacks.
They tend to get sweltering in the centre in hot seasons, causing lots of red spider and scorch, they drip condensate on you, they can blow down/away in gales and the polythene needs changing after around five years or even more frequently after visitations from the likes of Dennis and Ciara.
After looking at several I have opted for a Keder. These are covered in a superior polythene with bubbles which has far better R-values (resistance to the flow of heat) and U-values (rate of heat loss) to those of glass and double skinned polytunnels. The cover is guaranteed for 10 years (but the oldest is still going strong at 27 years).
The Keder can withstand wind speeds of 140mph (Dennis was a doddle), has a venting system and gives an excellent diffused light. Strangely, it feels lighter inside than out on a dull day and it blocks out some types of UV light – better for my complexion. The downside is cost, a self-build type is about twice the cost of a basic polytunnel. A typical self- build, 6m x 3m (takes less than a day to put up for one man/woman), costs £2,274 including VAT.
I was concerned about the industrial appearance, but my son Fred says I should embrace this. No chance – I’m screening it with a hedge. It will slightly reduce the light levels, but so be it.
Harvesting and picking
I am picking a wonderful deep crimson radicchio, Rossa di Treviso (seedsofitaly.com) which I sowed in July. It is an easy winter salad to grow outside, I’ve been cutting it since January and it should last until March. At the Ox Barn restaurant at Thyme in Southrop (where we designed the garden; thyme.co.uk), chef Charlie Hibbert uses it in a sublime dish.
A new gadget
It has been found that if you water seeds with magnetised water the plants flower earlier and weigh more, which presumably equates to stronger growth. This has been used to advantage in Australia for more than 10 years. Now we are able to get magnetisers, called Plantsurge, to put on hoses and taps. They cost £29.95 with a 365-day guarantee (water magnetiser.co.uk/garden).
As you fill the can or use the hose the water passes through the magnet and gains a magnetic charge. The idea is that it makes the water molecules shrink so they enter the plant more easily, together with any dissolved minerals.
Sounds extraordinary; there is some scientific evidence to back it up but it is not clear exactly why it works. Apparently plants taste better, grow better and need less water. I am putting one on the kitchen tap too – so if you see me leaping around, reinvigorated, you will know why.
Watch Bunny on YouTube
I have religiously avoided partaking in all forms of social media but find myself using YouTube more and more.
It’s brilliant if you want to refresh your apple-grafting skills or, as my husband tells me, stack a dishwasher properly. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been revised – it is estimated that a minute of video content is equivalent to 1.8 million words.
As a result I have just started my YouTube channel and am aiming to cover my gardening experiences, from box blight to Lyme disease, and include garden designs too.
For further thoughts on polytunnels, seed sowing and box blight, visit Bunny Guinness on YouTube.
New onions and tomatoes
I sowed two new onions from Suttons at the end of January and a month later they were starting to show. I am always searching for sweet, mild onions for salads and “Walla Walla”, new this year, sounds promising. Not hot or pungent and super sweet.
The sweetness is not due to sugar, but to the low sulphur content, about half that of an ordinary onion. Apparently you can eat it like an apple – sounds like it might be too mild, but we shall see. It is non-tearing too. I aimed to sow one to three seeds per cell but clusters of three or four still develop well in a clump so I am not over careful and won’t thin.
I also tried “Isobel Rose” another new mild pink onion from Suttons. These can be sown outside now.
Pink tomatoes are popular in Japan, where flavour as opposed to shelf life is top priority. The Japanese sell tomatoes by variety, like apples. They tried to launch pink ones here about 20 years ago but we were not impressed. This year Kings Seeds have launched Honey Moon F1.
Not only is the fruit an unusual colour but it is the most flavoursome tomato, with large fruits about 250g. It can be grown outside or in. I am sowing a few varieties of tomatoes this week, including my favourite, Sungold F1 (thompson-morgan.com). This comes into fruit early, and often goes on until Christmas in my cold greenhouse.
Rösti with radicchio salad
By Charlie Hibbert, Head Chef of The Ox Barn
four to six
For the potato rösti
- 3 large chipping potatoes (eg King Edward or Maris Piper)
- ½ tsp picked and chopped thyme
- 1 garlic clove, crushed/grated
- Duck fat or vegetable oil
For the salad
- 2 white onions, halved 10 baby beetroots
- 1 head tardivo (radicchio)
- 1 bunch of picked dill
- 1 bunch of parsley, chopped
For the dressing
- Olive oil
- Red wine vinegar, to taste
- Roast the onions in the oven at 200C/180C fan/Gas 6 for around 20 minutes and set aside.
- Meanwhile cover the beetroot with water, bring to the boil and cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until soft when pierced with a knife. Drain water and allow beetroots to cool enough to be handled and you can remove skins.
- To make the rösti, coarsely grate the potato and squeeze out any excess water through a tea towel, before mixing in the thyme and garlic and coating thoroughly in the fat or vegetable oil.
- At Thyme, they use 12cm egg pans to keep the röstis uniform, but they can be cooked in batches in a larger heavy based frying pan.
- Using a big serving spoon, place dollops of the potato mixture in a hot pan and fry until coloured on one side, two to three minutes.
- Gently turn the rösti in the pan taking care not to splash hot oil, and cook until browned, another two or three minutes.
- Assemble the salad by tossing the beetroot, onion halves and tardivo leaves with olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar and seasoning.
- Top the rösti with salad, followed by a spoonful of yogurt, and scatter over the dill and parsley.
- Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and serve immediately.