Improving Vegetable Bed Soil

The soil in our  vegetable beds has been consistently poor over the last couple of years. Always very crumbly it seems very loose and doesn’t hold the moisture (and as a result nutrients) very well at all.

While the soil in the rest of the garden is generally good theses particular beds seem to be the exception. Even the odd top dressing of compost doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the structure of the soil so I thought it about time to add some manure.

The beds are slightly raised and adjacent to a wall. On the other side of the wall are several very large trees that I suspect of draining much of the moisture away.

When we moved in to the house the beds contained various grasses which, with hindsight, indicate that the area isn’t the wettest.

Repairing Dry Loose Soil

So its time to try and improve the structure of the soil and in particular improve its moisture retention. Luckily we leave near to several stables so there is no shortage of horse manure locally.

When adding manure to the garden its always best to add manure that has rotted for a few months if possible. If not it will likely burn your plants as it’ll be far too rich in nitrogen.

If like me you only have a supply of fresh manure then the best time to add it to your soil is in the Autumn. This means it has time to mature before you plant into it next spring.

Improving Soil

To dig or not to dig?

When adding manure there is always the question of whether to dig it in or not. Personally I prefer to simply add a layer (a few inches thick) to the surface of the bed and leave it over winter. To me this has a few benefits over digging it in:

– the rain and worms will gradually draw the nutrients and bulk down into the soil over the winter, saving you the hard work.

– by sitting on top of the bed and acting as a mulch over the winter, weed growth will be kept to a minimum

– the mulching will also retain moisture in the soil over the winter period

– this no dig approach will require less work and the beds will only require a light forking over in the spring as opposed to a severe digging in now

Sloe Gin Recipe

While out for a walk on Sunday, spotting several Blackthorn bushes laden with sloes reminded me of last years failed attempt to make some sloe gin. We left the picking far too late and by the time we finally headed out to pick some sloes those that the birds hadn’t eaten were all well past their best. Despite it only just being September many of the bushes near us (SE England) have lots of ripe sloes on so determined to avoid another missed opportunity we started picking straight away.

What is Sloe Gin?

If you’re keen to start dabbling in a bit of foraging or like the idea of making some home brew then sloe gin is a great introduction to both. Sloes are one of the most common hedgerow berries in the UK and are a distant relative of the plum. They are small blue/grey fruits that grow on the blackthorn bush which is common amongst hedgerows throughout much of England.

To make sloe gin you simply infuse regular gin with sloes, adding some sugar which helps extract the juice from the berries as well as sweeten the final drink. After allowing the juice to infuse with the gin and sugar for a few months you simply strain and end up with a ruby red gin with a great flavour.

sloe gin recipe

How to Make Sloe Gin

Depending on the weather the best time for picking is September and October. The fruits are naturally hard and bitter so don’t expect to be feasting when picking sloes. When they’re ripe sloes should not be rock hard but have a little give.

In late summer/early autumn keep an eye out in the hedge rows and you should spot the purple/blue berries appearing. If you can try not to pick them too early as unripe sloes won’t produce too much flavour for your gin.

Once you’ve picked your sloes, the only other ingredients you need is some granulated sugar and some medium quality gin.

Sloe Gin Ingredients

  • 800 grams of sloes
  • 70cl of gin
  • 200 grams of sugar


1. First of all wash your sloes and ensure you’ve removed all of the leaves, twigs and bugs.  You don’t have to be too fussy as you’ll be filtering all of the impurities out after 12 weeks anyway.

2. Next you need to pierce the skin of the sloes to help them leach their juices into the gin. The slow method is to prick each one a couple of times with a fork or pin. The quick method is to freeze the sloes over night then take them out of the freezer for a couple of hours and as they defrost the skin bursts, saving you the hard work.

This freezing method has the added benefit that some people believe that you shouldn’t pick the sloes until just after the first frost – it is thought that this freezing activates the sugars in the sloes which in turn enhances the flavour of the final liqueur.

What Is Sloe Gin?

3. Next you need to sterilize your bottles/jars. The easiest way to do this is the pop them into an oven for 10 minutes at about 170 degrees. For the lids, which often have plastic/rubber seals or the rubber seals from kilner jars simply pop them into a pan of water and bring it to the boil.

4. Place the gin into your bottle/kilner jar then simple add the sloes to almost fill up the bottle. Next add in the sugar and seal tightly before giving it a good shake.There’s no need to worry about dissolving all of the sugar as this will happen over the next few days. Try to fill the bottle/jar as much as possible, the more air that is in there the greater the chance of bad bacteria spoiling the flavour of your final liqueur.

5. Store the bottle/jar in a cool dark place and for the first couple of weeks give it a little shake/turn every day to help dissolve the sugar and get the flavors mixing. After this first week or two turning the bottle once a week should suffice.

6. After three months it’s time to decant the gin, removing the solids so it can mature further and be stored for a long time (if required). I use a small kitchen funnel and tea strainer to help separate out the sloes from the gin. Once you’ve strained it you should end up with a clear dark red liquid.

7. Now i simply re-bottle the gin into freshly sterilized bottle and store. You can start drinking it straight away but it will keep for many years and it definitely improves with age.

Homemade Sloe Gin

While I’ve described the basic recipe above some people recommend putting a small amount of almond or vanilla essence. I’ve also heard cinnamon complements the flavour of the sloes well but i haven’t tried it yet, maybe i’ll try that next year.


Time to Take Basil Cuttings

After finally discovering the secrets of growing basil last year it is long overdue i started off some more basil plants. The only way to grow basil is on mass so you don’t feel guilty cutting back a whole plant to make a nice fresh pesto. After experimenting with growing from seeds I dind by far the quickest and easiest way is to start off with a supermarket bought basil plant.

I simply take about 15-20 cuttings from the original plant as soon as i get it home and pop them into small glasses of water. They’re left on a bright windowsill that doesn’t get too much direct sun. After 2-3 days this is what you get….

Basil Cuttings

It always amazes me how quickly the roots grow  from these basil cuttings. The above plant is only 5 days old! I’ve just potted up the cuttings into regular compost to grow on. I usually pinch out the tops after 2-3 weeks of further growth to help the plants bush out.

I’ve found the real secret to growing basil is to no let it have too much direct sunlight. In our kitchen we have a small dormer window that get plenty of light but not too much direct – only an hour or so in the morning. It seems to be the perfect place to grow basil. Hopefully it won’t be long before pesto is on the menu…

Mollusc Madness

The wet weather we’ve been having recently  has unfortunately meant that conditions have been ideal for slugs and snails to thrive. We’ve quite lucky to have quite a good population of birds that feast on these molluscs. Quite a few time recently I’ve seen a song thrush pull out snails from an ivy bush and proceed to smash their shells open before dispatching them.

If you believe the BBC then an invasion of so called Spanish super slugs is to blame, the wet weather certainly hasn’t helped. On Sunday I was pretty disappointed to see that the local molluscs had demolished our window box salads, completely.

Desimated Salad CropSalad Growing Apple Crate

Luckily they didn’t get inside the apple crates at our Romaine lettuces which have been loving the wet weather and are thriving. So, it’s time to get some more seed in, hopefully in time for some drier weather to arrive!

Chop the Chives

There are not many flowers as stunning as chive flowers. As you can see below our chives have been growing really well this year and have been producing stunning flowers for about the last five weeks. As well as looking great the flowers are really edible and add a wonderful allium fragrance to a salad or on top of a pizza.

Chive Flowers

Unfortunately the photo above was taken a week or so ago and the display is now over and the plant is getting a bit ‘woody’. As a result it’s now time to take the shears to it and prune it back hard to the ground to encourage some new growth.

Actually this plant has been in the ground for 2 years now and has grown rigorously. In order to stop it taking over the herb garden and et some new younger growth i may well split it. Though I’ve not actually done so before I believe its a simple case of digging up the clump, splitting the bulbs into a couple of clumps and replanting at the same depth.

Growing Salad in Window Boxes

You can’t beat wandering out into the garden armed with a pair of scissors and coming back a few minutes later with enough fresh veg for a nice healthy salad to accompany your evening meal.

After encountering so many issues with slugs and snails munching my ground planted salads I’ve really taken to planting mixed salad leaves in containers…specifically old metal window boxes.

Mixed Salad in Window Boxes

Mixed Salad in Window Boxes-2

In the window boxes above I’ve got rocket in one and mixed leaves in the other.They only take a couple of weeks to get to the stage when you can start picking leaves. Once they get going I find just a couple of boxes is plenty  enough to keep us in salad. Invariably we neglect to pick them and they bolt or go to seed. When this happens I simply assign them to the compost bin and start again.

As well as regular lettuce leaves other options I’m a fan of are pak choi, beetroot, radish, spinach and chard. So long as you pick the leave while they are nice and young they all make interesting, tasty and colourful salads.


Borlotti Bungle

Twice in previous years I’ve made the mistake of planting bush type borlotti beans thinking they were climbers. Well, despite the packet clearly stating they are climbers i think I’ve only gone and done it again. After shooting up in the last two weeks it looks like they’re not going to get any taller.

Borlotti Bungle 1Borlotti Bungle 2

So called climbing borlotti beans

In order to avoid disappointment I’ve put in a few runner bean seeds in and around the pots the borlotti’s are in so I should have a few beans climbing up the nice tripods I made out of bamboo canes and twine.




More Sweet Peas

Having pinched out my sweet peas a couple of weeks ago I planted them out around a couple of wooden tripods which we bought a few weeks ago at a local gardening show.

Unfortunately disaster struck as a small rabbit managed to sneaks it’s way in to our walled garden and proceeded to munch it’s way through the sweet pea tips as well as a few other trays of seedlings I’d carelessly left out on the patio.

After getting it’s way into the garden it appeared the furry intruder was stuck inside and after a few sightings over a few days I battled in vein to catch the furry captive!

sweet peas nibbled by a rabbit

After about 5 days I managed to trap the offending rabbit behind the garden shed and with the help of a flower pot and a piece of wood I scooped it up and it was released into a ditch down the road.

Luckily I’d got a second batch of sweet peas in the greenhouse which I’d planted directly from seed into some home made pots made from old newspapers. As you can see from the pictures the newspaper pots have worked really well and the roots of the sweet peas are bursting through them so its a great time to get them planted out in the ground.

sweet peas 2nd batchHome made newspaper potsrecycled newspaper pots

The pots were incredibly easy to make, I just rolled 2 sheets of newspaper around the end of a rolling pin and scrunched over to form the bottom of the pot. The idea is they will simply compost away once planted out, allowing the roots to grow through them.

sweet peas around a tripod

I’m not sure which variety this second batch of sweet peas is, they seem a lot thinner and more delicate than the original batch pictured above. Hopefully now the rabbit has been dispatched they’ll flourish and put on a good show of fragrant color in a few weeks time.


Pinching Out Sweet Peas

You know Spring is (should) be just round the corner when you need to start worrying about pinching out sweet peas. I planted these about 3 weeks ago. I soaked the seeds in water over night and they germinated within about 1 week.

I still think it is a bit cold to plant them out with this cold snap. Instead i’m hardening them off by putting them outside during the day and for warmer nights and bringing them back into the green house on colder nights.

Pinching Out Sweat Peas

In order to make them into bushier plants i’ve just pinched them out. Sweet peas usually benefit from this every few weeks in the early stages of growth. All i do to pinch them out is to nip off the top of the seedling just above the 2nd or 3rd set of leaves. Hopefully the weather will improve and i’ll be able to get these planted outside in the next couple of weeks.



Mint is an impossible plant to kill. This plant is about 5 years old, taken from a cutting from another plant. It’s been left abused in a pot in shady spots for months, its dried out in fill sun and not been watered. No matter how badly i treat it every spring it bursts back to health and puts on lots of fresh growth.


Mint In a Pot

Mint is very vigorous an can take over borders. As a result it’s best to keep it in a pot  to stop it spreading. We keep ours in a large pot, next to the herb garden by the back door. The leaves are great for adding to salads or for garnishing deserts.

Another great way of using the leaves is to make your own mint tea. Simply click off about 5 leaves and add then to a cup of boiling water…couldn’t be simpler or more refreshing!

Home Grown Mint Tea