Happy Christmas from The Diligent Gardener

Happy Christmas to all our readers, we hope you have a great day! Don't eat too much turkey :)

Get your Winter Onions in

Following on from our post earlier this month about how to grow onions its worth reminding ourselves that there are actually quite a number of different varieties of onions from sets that can planted in your vegetable plot or allotment now. Sets are the simplest way to grow onions yourself much easier than from seed. They have the bonus that they can be harvested earlier on in the year as well.

Electric is a good red set, Radar a good yellow and Shakespeare is a highly reliable white.

You can also sow some spring onions now: White Lisbon Winter Hardy is a good one that we like to use. Check your local garden centre as quite a lot of them will have shallots available now for plantin. Jermor is already available in my local garden centre. These are good to be planted about now or though until just into the New Year.

How to make Winter Vegetable Soup

With the temperatures dropping and there still being plenty of winter vegetables in the ground or in storage a great way to keep warm and eat them up is by making a winter vegetable soup. This simple and handy recipe is easy to make and very filling.


  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1.5 litres / 2½ pints Chicken or vegetable stock (homemade or use stock cubes) 
  • 100g / 3½ oz Pearl barley 
  • 1 medium/large onion chopped
  • 2 leeks, trimmed top and bottom
  • 2 celery sticks, chopped
  • 2 large carrots chopped
  • 1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and chopped into smallish pieces
  • 5 tablespoons white wine 
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • 2 stalks of thyme choped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 
  • Salt, black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg
  • Bread - your choice!

1. Make the chicken (or vegetable) stock either using stock cubes (follow packet instructions for how many cubes to make 2.5 pints) or your own prepared stock. Use a medium sized-pan. Add the pearl barley and simmer the mixture whilst continuing on with the steps below.

2. Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and leeks and cook, stirring, over a medium heat, for 4-5 minutes until soft. Add the wine now along with the parsnips, celery, carrots and potato and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes.

3. Pour your stock into the saucepan with the vegetables and bring to the boil, adding the tomato puree and bay leaves to complete the soup. then simmer for 20 to 25 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.

4. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, then stir in the parsley an thyme.

5. Transfer to warmed bowls. Serve with your bread.

6. Eat and enjoy!

Free Entry to Kew Gardens this Christmas

Kew Gardens are offering free tickets by signing up for them on their website (see here), The tickets are available from 22 December through to the 4 January 2013.

A Beginner's Guide to Growing Raspberries

To ensure you can enjoy delicious raspberries it's essential you prepare well beforehand. Choosing the best area to grow raspberries will ensure good growth; they thrive in sheltered yet sunny conditions although they can still bear fruit when partly shaded. Once you've found the prime position remove any weeds and add plenty of well rotted manure into the soil. Raspberry plants benefit from slightly acidic soil - a pH testing kit will allow you to determine whether you need to add ammonium sulphate to your soil to increase its acidity.

Now that you've found the perfect spot and made sure the soil is in an ideal condition you can turn your attention towards actually planting the raspberries. They can be planted anytime during the dormant season (November-March) provided the soil isn't frozen or waterlogged.

Types of raspberry

There are two types of raspberries - autumn fruiting and summer fruiting. Summer fruiting varieties grow raspberry canes once a year and bear fruit the next (you still harvest fruit every year - just from different canes), while autumn fruiting raspberries grow and fruit every year.

Supporting growth

For raspberries to grow to their full potential you need to provide them with the right support. Plants should be planted 2ft apart - if growing multiple rows, these should be 6ft apart. Hammer two 8ft stakes about 2ft deep into the ground, 10ft apart. Three layers of 12 gauge galvanised wires should be stretched between these posts at 30, 42, and 66 inches above ground level, held firmly in place with straining bolts.

Raspberry maintenance

Summer fruiting raspberries should have their fruit bearing canes cut to ground level during the autumn - take care to make sure you don't prune the growing canes. The eight strongest pruned canes can be tied to the wire supports, leaving a gap of 3-4 inches, while the remaining canes can be removed completely.
Autumn fruiting raspberries on the other hand should have all their canes cut to ground level in February, although the canes can be trimmed in summer if overcrowding is hampering growth.

Container planted raspberries

If you can't grow your raspberries directly into the ground don't despair - raspberries can also be grown in containers. A single plant can successfully grow in a 15 inch diameter container filled with an 80:20 mix of multipurpose compost and loam-based potting compost, which is fed during the growing season with a general purpose liquid fertiliser. Canes can be trained up bamboo cane in a similar way to single plants grown into the ground.


As long as you remember to keep raspberry plants well watered and give them plenty to feed on (mulch general purpose granular fertiliser with rotted farmyard manure in spring) you can look forward to a bountiful yield. Whether eaten with pavlova, turned into a delicious jam or eaten alone, you can delight your taste buds with the fresh, fruity taste that just isn't available from the shops.

Author Bio: YouGarden is an online gardening center run by three horticulturalist who have over 50 years combined experience. They have one simple ethos “Gardening for Everyone” and sell everything from soft fruit plants and bushes to flowers and fruit trees

How to Cook Perfect Brussel Sprouts

Brussel Sprouts are often ready for harvesting now, but to many people they bring back memories of childhood, being forced to stay at the table until you have eaten (or hidden) the last brussels on your dinner plate. Heres several options to make the perfect Brussel Sprouts

Brussels with Bacon and Chestnuts
First fry your bacon in a hot pan without any oil for about 10 minutes until it is crisp. Then add chestnuts and fry until they are beginning to colour and coated in the bacon fat. Drain off the excess fat, then place the fried bacon  with the chestnuts into a bowl and allow them to cool. Beat some butter with a spatula to soften, then mix in the bacon and chestnuts. Season the mix with black pepper, and store in fridge. This will keep fresh for about 3 days in the fridge or could be frozen.

To serve, place your sprouts in a microwaveable bowl, and pour in approximately 100ml of water, cover with cling film and pierce a few holes in the top. Microwave your sprouts on High (850W) for about 16 to18 minutes, stirring at least twice during cooking, or alternatively cook in a pan of boiling water for 5 mins. Drain  off the water and place into a warm serving dish, then add the butter over to melt.

Brussels with pancetta
Blanch the Brussels sprouts in a pan of boiling salted water for 3 mins. Drain the water away and place into a bowl of iced water to quickly cool them. Drain off any water again and set aside until nearly ready to serve. Sauté the pancetta in hot goose fat until crisp, add in the sprouts and stir-fry everything for a further 2 to 3 minutes, before placing in a bowl to serve.

Brussels with hazelnuts
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the sprouts and cook them for about 5 minutes until just done. Drain well and place the sprouts into a warmed serving dish. Meanwhile, melt some butter in a small frying pan and add your hazelnuts. Cook the hazelnuts until they just start to brown, and the butter is turning a lovely deep golden brown. It should smell delightful, a lovely nutty smell. Tip this mixture over your sprouts, and add pepper to your taste.

Hopefully there will be no more hiding the sprouts round the back of the plates or feeding to the dog!

The December Allotment

Just because its December and we have had some snow doesn't mean the Allotment goes quiet at this time of year. There is plenty to be getting on with.

Assuming you had a good year so far there will be plenty to harvest:

Winter cabbages, cauliflowers and the Brussels sprouts can be harvested now. Remember Brussels are not just for Christmas :)

Leeks should also be just about ready, just take what you need and leave the rest to stand until required. Leeks are much better harvested from the garden as they are required but in severe weather this can be difficult, so you can lift a few and heel them in on well dug ground, this will not freeze solid.

Carrots can be lifted now for storage if you haven't done this already, they can be stored either in peat or sand or even a traditional clamp.

Jerusalem artichokes should be ready for harvesting now and you can also start on salsify and scorzonera. Salsify is known as the 'vegetable oyster' and is a wonderful vegetable when it has been cooked properly.

Lift celery, parsnips turnips and swedes although parsnips and swedes are very hardy and may be left if the ground is you are not yet ready to eat them. You can always cover them with fleece or straw to help stop the ground freezing them in.

Finally you should check the vegetables you already have in storage and remove anything that has started to rot before the rot spreads and ruins the entire crop. Potatoes in particular should be checked regularly and watch out for slugs that have emerged from a potato to go and damage another one.

Other jobs to think about, Cleaning the greenhouse or coldframe if its empty over winter, check and repair any broken fences, sheds etc. December is also the ideal time to prune apples and pears as well ass gooseberries and currants.Clean, oil and repair your tools, its amazing how much they get used over the year so will appreciate some TLC in December.

But whatever you do remember to stay warm, and be careful on frozen ground.

How to Make French Onion Soup

Following on from our post the other day about how to grow onions, we thought it would be a good time to think about what to do with some of them! Onion based soups have been popular at least as far back as Roman times. They were then usually seen as food for poor people, as onions were plentiful and easy to grow. The modern version of this soup originates in France in the 18th century, made from beef broth, and caramelized onions. It is often finished by being placed under a grill in a ramekin traditionally with croutons and gruyère melted on top. The croutons on top is reminiscent of ancient soups

  • 6 large red or yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced.
  • Olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon of sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 cups of beef stock
  • 1/2 cup of dry white wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon of dry thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 slices of toasted French bread
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated Swiss Gruyere with a little grated Parmesan cheese
1 Cut each onion in half lengthwise, then slice into half-moons. Slice these half-moons in half again. Place them into a large saucepan, sauté the onions in the olive oil on medium high heat until well browned, but not burned, about 30-40 minutes (or longer). You can let them cook even longer — an hour and a half will give you deeply caramelized onions! Just let them cook, stirring at times, as you see dark colour emerge. After 45 minutes they will look pale mahogany in colour. You can let them get even darker if you like — just don't let them burn or get black. Adjust the heat as necessary.

2 Add the sugar about 10 minutes into the process to help them to carmelise. The rich flavour of the base is not due just to the broth, but to the caramelized onions (typically, the pot is full of sliced onions, which will shrink down to less than half the volume on cooking).

3 Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the stock,  wine, bay leaf, and thyme. Cover partially and simmer until the flavours are well blended, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaf.

4 To serve you can either use individual oven-proof soup bowls or one large casserole dish. Ladle the soup into the bowls or casserole dish. Cover with the toast and sprinkle with cheese. Put into the broiler for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F, or until the cheese bubbles and is slightly browned. Serve immediately.

Christmas Presents for Gardeners

I  don't know about you but I would rather have something for the garden as a Christmas present rather than another novelty pair of socks, but with so many possible things to ask for whats do you go for?

There's several different items on my list for friends and family this year (hint hint), all of which are useful and desirable. The following are from a delightfully co-ordinated range available online.

How about a thermometer for the garden, with weather conditions  being very variable and different in various parts of the garden, let alone the country it is handy to have at least one outdoor thermometer in the garden. Ideally you should have several in different places, I always have one in the greenhouse as well.

This small tube thermometer is wall mounted and comes in a range of different colours, (shutter blue - illustrated, clay and also in slate) and can be easily wall mounted, very elegant design that would work well in a contemporary garden or classic country cottage garden.

The Small Tube Thermometer is available for £15 from Garden Trading.
As regular readers will know we love growing herbs in pots (remember our post from October?). And of course one of the important things when growing herbs in pots are the pots themselves. These pots would be ideal for a windowsill for growing  smaller herbs such as sage, parsley etc, have them to hand for when you are cooking and need to grab a few.

Perfectly colour co-ordinated with the thermometer above this trio of charming pots are perfect to create a miniature herb garden and again comes in (shutter blue, clay and slate). At just £18 for set of three they are good value too.

Available from

Another one to add to the list is this string and seeds box gift set.

I am always losing packets of seeds, leaving them in drawers, old coats, even in the cats basket (although I blame him, not me!). But if like me you are less than organised with your seeds this gift set of seed box and string caddy is a perfect and very stylish solution.

As with the other items in the range the boxes are available in the same complimentary colours and this little set wont break the bank at just £12.  

The final item on my list (for now!) is the lovely bug box, with winter well on its way now (or in my case well and truly arrived) do spare a thought to all the little pollinators that you will need in the garden and allotment for next year. They need a place to be snug and safe over winter and this bug box is a perfect solution to help them on their way.

With plenty of holes, gaps and tunnels this can be home to various bug-allies such as ladybirds, and lacewings.

Do remember that the novelty sock shops will be grabbing your families attention any day now so get your alternative suggestions off to Santa soon!

How to Grow Onions

As I mentioned the other day there is still just about time to plant your onions, so with that in mind its the perfect time to talk onion.

The onion,(allium cepa)almost certainly comes from the central Asian region. However as it has been in cultivation for so many years the exact origin is now unclear, in fact there are five possible wild plants it could have evolved from. It was the Romans who named and introduced the onion to Europe, the Latin name was ‘unio’ for large pearl, changed to ‘oignon’ by the French. The popularity eating onions rose significantly after French Onion Soup was popularised by Stanislaus I, the former King of Poland. It is recorded that during the Middle Ages people would pay their rent with onions and even give them as gifts as onions were such an important food. However moving on to the allotment, how do you plant onions?

Onions come in several coloured varieties such as yellow, red, or white,. However the vast majority of onions grown are of the yellow varieties. This is because yellows are good all round onions and also keep better over winter when stored correctly. In addition the yellows have tougher skin and are more disease resistant being less susceptible to insects. Red onions are the sweetest but typically the worst to keep over winter. White onions are usually grown for salad or spring onions and are harvested as green onions before their bulbs fully form.

Onions should be given a sunny aspect in a rich but also a light soil, however they will usually do pretty well in most soils. However in common with many other plants do not plant in freshly manured soil.

Onions can be planted as sets (small, immature onions) in the spring or late summer, through to Autumn. Sets come in a variety of sizes and each forms one full sized bulb when ready to harvest. Growing onions from sets is usually much easier and will also be more reliable than from growing onions from seed. Not only are they more reliable but in cooler and damper areas then sets will give a better harvest of larger bulbs than if you just grow them from seed. However with sets there are fewer varieties available to select from and the cost will be higher than if you grow your onions from seed. To plant your sets space them about 4inches apart with 8 inches between the rows, with the pointed end upward sand with the tip just below soil level.

A good method that I was taught on my grandfathers allotment is to plant your seed in the autumn in drills about half an inch deep with rows about 16inches apart. Leave until spring, when the seedlings should be thinned to 2inches apart. If leaving late in the season try planting in a greenhouse in trays & transplanting 2inches apart when hardened off.

Although Onions are an easy crop to grow, there can be some problems, do watch out for these.

The onions grow a central stalk that if left unchecked would develop the seed head. It is usually caused by weather conditions, typically if there is a cold spring followed by a hot summer that seems to encourage it. If the bulbs are not in firm ground then this can also cause bolting. To prevent it being a problem then cut the stalk off an inch or so above the bulb but remember to eat these onions first since they do not usually store as well.

Grey mould
If you get a grey mould on the onions you have in store or general rotting then this is usually caused by the onions not having dried out enough prior to storing or even damp storage conditions. You should check regularly and remove any onions showing signs of rot before it spreads to the others.

Mould or rust
This can occur during prolonged rainy periods. Any bulbs showing signs of mould or rust must to be thrown away or ideally burnt. To reduce the risk then give your plants some protection with a cloche in wet periods, but allow ventilation.

Onion white rot
This causes the foliage of your onions to go yellow and to wilt. Look out for fluffy white growths to confirm that it is onion white rot. Any plants showing signs should be thrown away (do not compost) and then you must not grow garlic or onions in the same area for at least 8 years as the fungal spores can remain in the ground.

Downy Mildew
Mildew will give the leaves an appearance of having slightly lighter patches in the early stages that will gradually turn to brown as the disease gets worse. To avoid this you should use crop rotation and ensure you have good drainage.

Onion Fly
These flies will lay their eggs by the base of the onion which when hatched turn into maggots that will eat the base of the onion as well as its roots. The only prevention is to prevent access using fleece as sadly there is not a cure once affected.
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