Believe it or not, cucumbers have been in cultivation for at least 3000 years. Originating in India, this refreshing crop is believed to have been introduced to Europe by the Romans, reaching England by the 14th century and North America by the 16th century.

Nowadays, the cucumber has become a mainstay of the British salad. In fact what could be more English or refined than a freshly cut cucumber sandwich?

Once used cucumbers to treat scorpion bites, bad eyesight and to scare away mice, the modern cucumber is now much less valued and far more available than ever before. Unfortunately due to the production techniques of commercial nurseries, the cucumbers bought in you local supermarkets are little more than a flavorless sponge.

Of course, many of the old varieties are still available, but to get the flavour of this fruit and its history you will have to grow your own from seed and thankfully this can be easily achieved with little or no experience.

How to grow cucumbers
To begin an early crop, particularly in a northern European climate, it is best to start off your cucumber seeds either indoors or in a heated greenhouse. Of course, cucumber seeds can be sown directly in the garden once the danger of late frosts has passed, but this will result in a later crop.
You can begin sowing cucumber seeds any time from the end of March. Using either 2/3 inch pots or a modular plug tray, fill with a good quality seed compost such as John Innes ‘Seed and Potting’. Using a dibber, or – as in my case - the rounded end of a pencil, make two holes near the centre of the pot/module.

Place one cucumber seed into each hole, then back fill with compost and water in thoroughly. The tray/pots are now ready to be moved to a warm windowsill, heated propagator or heated greenhouse. Should you wish, you can cover the pots/trays with a sheet of glass, perspex or cling-film in order to maintain humidity.

Cucumber seed will germinate quite quickly - usually not much more that a week – and as soon as the new seedling begin to emerge any coverings should be removed. Once the seedlings have reached an inch or two, the weaker of the two seedlings can be removed.

Keep well watered – but not waterlogged – and feed with a half strength liquid fertiliser once a week. Once they have between 2 and four true leaves the seedlings can be planted outside into their final positions once the threat of late frosts are over, but they will need to be hardened off for a couple of weeks before hand. If a cool period of weather is due it is sometime worth waiting a few days. This can be done by bringing them back undercover overnight or protecting them with a cloche or small poly-tunnel.

Plant them approximately 18 inches apart in rows that are spaced every 5 feet.
TIP. Do not allow the seedlings to get too large in their containers as they become slower to root with age.


It’s hard to beat the taste of a freshly picked and timely cooked sweet corn. In fact the very thought of a home grown cob - boiled to perfection and drizzled in butter - is enough to make your mouth water. Of course, the only way to assure such a culinary delight is to grow your own because freshness is the only guarantee of quality flavour. In fact some say that there should be no more than 10 minutes between picking and cooking!

Luckily, growing sweet corn from seed is a straightforward affair requiring little technical knowledge. Probably the most important point with regards to growing sweet corn is the time the seed is sown, and this is all to do with temperatures.

In northern European climates, the seed can be started off under protection from mid April onwards with a view to planting out from the end of May up until the middle of June. Of course, planting out will all depend on how late the frosts are in your area because your sweet corn crop will be lost if it is hit by a late frost. Secondly, planting out into open ground should really wait until outside temperatures are consistently reaching at least 16 degrees Celsius during the day. If it is colder than that then the crop could be at risk from fungal disease.

.Sowing Sweet Corn

To ensure an early crop, sow sweet corn seed - either indoors or in a heated greenhouse – around about mid April. Using modular trays or 2/3 inch pots, fill with a good quality compost such as John Innes ‘Seed and Potting’, then sow two seeds into each unit covering them with a good inch of compost. Water well and if they are being germinated indoors - move to a warm, bright windowsill. If you are using a heated propagator or greenhouse then the temperature will need to be kept at approximately 18 – 21 degrees Celsius.

The sweet corn seedlings should germinate after 10 – 12 days, and once they have fully emerged the weakest seedling from each pot should be removed. If they have been germinated in a propagator the lid can also be removed and the temperature turned down to 16 degrees Celsius. However they are being grown, do not allow the compost to dry out or to become waterlogged as this can increase the risk of fungal infection.

The young sweet corn plants, and be planted into their final positions once all danger of frost has passed – around the middle of May, but remember that they will need to be hardened off for a week or so before hand. This can be achieved by either bringing them back under protection over-night or placing them under a cloche or polytunnel outside.

Unlike many of our common food crops sweet corn are wind pollinated so once they are hardened off - and ready for their final position - they will need to be planted into block in order to ensure good pollination. Poor pollination will only result in a poor crop!

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I don't know how it is where you live but none on the seed suppliers in my area carry red kidney beans as part of their range. Maybe it’s because they are too tender to grow in this part of the country – unlikely, or perhaps it’s because of their toxicity if they are not correctly prepared before cooking and eating. I don't know answer for sure, but I do know that you can pick up large packs of dried red kidney beans in your local supermarket.

I love to grow the same edible crops that are used in our home cooking, and as chilli-con-carne is a favourite in my family, home grown red kidney beans are a must. With knowledge gained from last year’s trials and errors, I shall now give you my so called ‘expert’ tips in how to grow red Kidney beans from dried seed. It begins with choosing a free draining site that gets plenty of sun and is protected from harsh weather. It is also worth preparing the ground a couple of months before you intent planting you red kidney beans with plenty of mulch and farmyard manures.

How to germinate red kidney beans from dried seed

1. Create your own compost using a 2:1:1 mix of John Innes ‘Seed and Potting’ compost, Horticultural grit and top soil from where they will be finally planted.

2. Soak a handful of dried beans overnight in a bowl of lukewarm water.

3. Using modular plug trays or 2-3 inch pots – do not use seed trays as you need to keep root disturbance to an absolute minimum – sow your seeds, 1 per pot/module into your compost mix, having the bean about ½ inch below the surface.

4. Water well and then move to a warm, bright windowsill – keep moist, but do not allow the compost to become water-logged.

5. The beans will begin to germinate after a couple of days and after there have produced their first two true leave they can be hardened off for planting outside.

6. Planting red kidney beans can only be considered after the threat of frosts is over and when outside temperatures are consistently reaching 16 degrees Celsius.

7. Plant seedlings 18 inches apart in rows 2ft apart.

8. Red kidney beans are prone to damage from slugs and snails so make sure that there is adequate protection against these pests as soon as the plants go outside.

9. During the growing season be aware that red kidney beans require plenty of water and nutrition otherwise the crop can fail – mulching regularly will help with this.

10. Your beans will grow as a small bush and need support during the growing season. Make sure that this in place shortly after planting – give them the same support that you would do peas such as wigwams or small stakes.

When to harvest kidney beans
Allow the bean pods to dry as much as they can before the wet weather of autumn arrives. If they are not dry enough before that time, pick them and allow them to dry off fully indoors. Once completely dry they can be stored or used for cooking.

Dried beans also contain toxins, so when cooking with dried beans they must be soaked overnight in cold water. Afterwards, rinse the beans thoroughly then boil them rapidly for 10 minutes before adding them with your other recipe ingredients.

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When growing melons in an unheated greenhouse you will have three options. The plants can either be container grown, planted straight into the ground, or grown on using a grow bag. By far the best option would be to plant your seedlings into the ground – especially if it has been well prepared by the addition of plenty of well rotted farmyard manures – so long as it is suitably free draining and has a pH of between 6.0 to 7.0. Consider planting melon seedlings into raised beds if your climate is too cold, humid or if your soil is too heavy to be free draining.

If you are growing melons in a greenhouse it is reasonable to expect that any young plants would have been shop bought or germinated under protection. In both cases, the seedlings can be planted out into a cold glasshouse once the seedlings have produced two or more true leaves. This can be done any time from April onwards.

The next thing to do is to create some support for you melon plants as they grow. This can be a piece of secured trellis or a single line of string tied to the supports in the glasshouse roof and secured in the ground with a peg next to the base of the melon plant. As the melon begins to grow you should secure the strongest shoot to the support with a soft jute string and pinch out any side shoots growing out from the main stem. Once the main stem has reached the top of the support, pinch out the leading shoot. This will help bring the plant into flower and allow it to concentrate its energy on the formation of fruits.

Watering holds the key to successful melon growing, and perhaps the best way to water is with a drip irrigation system - unfortunately this is a luxury that few of us have.

For the rest of us, when watering melons only water them at the base of the plant making sure that none of the foliage becomes wet. Melon leaves can be very prone to fungal infections which will reduce the size and quality of your crop.

You can also consider the practise of sinking a suitably sized pipe into the ground next to the plants root system – try not to damage any roots when doing this - so you can water directly into the root environment.

Remember that it is all about trying to maintain an even root environment so try and avoid over and under-watering. Over-watering is particularly damaging as it can cause the fruits to split.

Glasshouse conditions can become extreme during the height of the summer. To prevent your crop from suffering heat damage try to raise the humidity within the greenhouse on the hottest days. This can be achieved by watering the greenhouse paths early in the morning or by standing a bucket of water in the middle of the glasshouse. However, good ventilation is also necessary in order to help reduce the incidence of fungal infections so make sure that windows and doors are kept open during the core day. Remove older leaves from the base of the melons as this will also improve air circulation around the plants.


In the open ground your melon flowers will be naturally pollinated by native insects but under greenhouse conditions this is less likely to happen as the structure will act as a barrier. Of course, no pollination means no crop, but once the flowers have opened you can pollinate them manually. Using a small, soft paintbrush, lightly brush each flower in turn. This practice is best carried out midday when the humidity is high. After 2 or 3 days you should remove the male flowers as these will sap the plants strength as they grow - the female flowers are easily identified by the embryonic melon growing behind the flower.


Feeding your melons is a simple enough task. Use a high potash liquid fertiliser on a weekly basis as soon as the fruits start to grow

As soon as the fruits reach the size of tennis balls they are going to need some support. Use string nets or old nylon stockings to take the weight off the plants framework and secure them properly to support wires, trellis or the greenhouse frame. As the summer progresses and the fruits mature to full size, remove a few leafs to allow the fruit to ripen.

HARVESTING. Wait until melons are fully ripe before you remove them from the parent plant - they won't be able to ripen off the vine.

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What is a Fig?


The Chinese mitten crab is just the latest in a long line of alien introductions that have caused havoc in our country’s waterways. First recorded in the River Thames in 1935, populations of the Chinese mitten crab remained localised for decades, but since the 1990’s their populations have seen a dramatic increase in both size and range of habitat. It is now well-established in the Rivers Thames, Humber, Medway, Tyne, Wharfe and Ouse.

They are aggressive, have few predators and will eat almost anything that they can get their claws into – aquatic plants, native fish eggs, and molluscs. Their opportunistic lifestyle has made them a hugely successful introduction, but this success has been at a high cost to the local environment. To make things worse, they can burrow a metre or more into river banks, affecting their integrity. At a time of increased flooding risk, areas where there are significant numbers of Chinese Mitten crabs have seen their once stable river banks collapse, causing considerable damage.

Chinese mitten crabs will happily survive in both fresh and saltwater. In fact, their young are born in coastal regions or estuaries, and then they migrate up the river to spend their adult lives in freshwater. Years later - when they reach sexual maturity - they will return back to the saltwater to breed. However, once they are in freshwater, they can move huge distances.

Dr. Paul Clark from the Natural History Museum had this to say on the matter:

‘...studies have shown they can migrate up to 1,500km. The crab can even leave the water, cross dry land and enter a new river system. Its phenomenal ability to disperse is of concern to scientists in the UK because the crab could infiltrate many of the country's rivers...’

For these reasons it has now been placed on the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) 100 of the world’s worst alien species list.

The Chinese mitten crab was given its intriguing name because its large claws - which are covered by soft bristles - resemble mittens. Its scientific name ‘Eriocheir sinensis’ derived from the Greek, means wool hand.


Carnivorous plants such as the Venus fly trap are well known for how they receive their nutrition – in fact the clue is in the name. However, the word ‘carnivorous’ is a little misleading as the majority of these specialised plants are actually insectivores - meaning that they predominately eat insects. Of course, no-one should forget the fearsome reputation of the pitcher plants, the only group capable of trapping warm-blooded prey!

Pitcher plants - the largest and perhaps the most impressive of all the carnivorous plants – have a specialised, prey-trapping mechanism which features a deep, bulbous cavity filled with a digestive fluid. The whole device is so effective that not only can they trap small insects, but also larger prey such as cockroaches, centipedes and scorpions. As mentioned before, some of the giant varieties of pitcher plant such as Nepenthes rajah, Nepenthes rafflesiana and Nepenthes attenboroughii are even able to catch prey the size of a large rat – but is that really what they are designed for?

A research team led by Dr Charles Clarke - an expert on carnivorous plants from Monash University in Malaysia has made a study by on the Giant Montane pitcher plant of Borneo - Nepenthes rajah. They have suggested an altogether different food source for this fascinating plant group and in the case of Nepenthes rajah, it looks as though it could it could be animal poo!

Dr. Clarke had this to say on his findings:

"…this species has always been famous for its ability to trap rodents, but I've been looking at the pitchers of this species on and off since 1987, and I've never seen a trapped rat inside. This made me wonder - if it is large enough to trap rats, but it only traps them very rarely, it is likely that the pitchers are large because of some other reason..?"

Dr Clarke and his colleagues soon turned their attention to tree shrews after noticing that they sometimes left faeces in the traps of the larger pitchers.

‘…all of a sudden we realised that there may be some relationship between big pitchers and tree shrews. So we decided to look at the pitcher geometry. What we found totally blew us away. In order for the tree shrews to reach the exudates, they must climb onto the pitchers and orient themselves in such a way that their backsides are located over the pitcher mouths. The tree shrews then appear to defecate as a way of marking their feeding territory. That suggests these supposedly ‘meat-eating’ plants have evolved a mutualistic relationship with tree shrews…’

Dr Clark believes that there is still much to learn about the true habits of carnivorous plants. In fact his team suspects that another highland species, Nepenthes ephippiata, is likely to feed on faeces too, as may the recently discovered Nepenthes attenboroughii.

‘…150 years after the discovery of N. rajah, we finally have an explanation for why the largest carnivorous plant in the world produces such big pitchers. The findings should radically alter how we look at these plants…’


The United Kingdom - as well as almost every other country on the planet - has often suffered from the effects of environmental damage through the proliferation of non-native species. For millennia, mankind has travelled the world, followed quickly by the establishment of trade routes and the movement of valuable animal and plant commodities. Unfortunately these routes have also brought their fair share of problems such as the globalisation of small pox, influenza and the infamous ‘black death’.

Today similar problems exist and while modern medicine had made great strides in the prevention of such epidemics there is still an on-going problem with the deliberate and accidental introduction of non-native plant and animal species into sensitive environments. Recent history has already shown us the terrible destruction that can be reaped through the experiences of Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand.
Invasive non-native plant and animal species are now the second greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide after habitat destruction. This is because they can have a negative impact on native species, as well as for the damage caused to the environment, and as a secondary issue - local economies.
The Japanese Knotweed in one of the most invasive non-native plant species to have been introduced into this country. With its natural habitat being on the slopes of volcanoes, it is no surprise that the less harsh and more fertile environment of Britain has allowed this plant to flourish to extreme proportions. Furthermore, outside of Asia, the plant has no natural biological enemies to check its spread. In Japan, for example, there are at least 30 species of insect and 6 species of fungi that live off this plant.

It thrives on disturbance. The tiniest piece can re-grow enabling the plant spread across the country by both natural means and human activity. Once established, it can quickly overrun riverbanks, railway embankments, road verges, gardens and hedgerows. This rapid growth and speed of travel makes the Japanese Knotweed a severe threat to the survival of native plant species, insects and therefore other native animal species.

Introduced to Britain between 1825 and 1841 the Japanese knotweed is now recognized as the most invasive and damaging weed in the country, even able to force its way through cracks in walls and pavements. It can grow to 13ft in height and with no natural peats or diseases – combined with a strong resistance to commercial weed killers - it has proved to be almost impossible to control.

Huge sums are being spent in the UK controlling the weed. In 2004, a DEFRA review of non-native species policy stated that a conservative estimate for the costs involved in eradication would be approximately £1.56bn. The aggressive spread of the plant has now resulted in it being listed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as a pest species. All parts of the plant are considered as controlled waste under the Waste Regulations.


Melons have been grown for their deliciously sweet flesh for over 4000 years. In fact, melons have been under human cultivation for so long that they no longer bear any resemblance to species plants growing in the wild.

Originating in the hot valleys of North Africa, south-west Asia and India, the popularity of this fruit has seen it spread across the globe. History tells us that the early American settlers grew cultivars of honeydew and casaba melons back in the 1600s, and even now there are still a number of old varieties available today such as the 400 year old ‘Petit Gris de Rene’.

Of course, with modern breeding programs there are many more varieties available that will suit a wide range of tastes and while you can generally buy ‘out of season’ produce whenever you want, growing your own melons from seed will not only give you the best choice, it can also get you the very best flavour.

Direct sowing into the ground is the best way to grow melons from seed but for those of us who live in cooler, northern European climates, you will need to start your melon seed off indoors. This gives the resulting seedlings a fighting chance to produce and ripen their fruit in a much shorter growing period.

Sowing Seed Indoors

Sow the seeds indoors around the middle of March into either 2-3 inch pots or large, modular seed trays. Use good quality loam based compost such as John Innes ‘seed and potting’, and avoid the temptation of using standard seed trays because you will want to disturb the root system as little as possible. You may wish to add a little extra horticultural grit or perlite to you compost mix as this will help with the drainage. Melon seedlings will require plenty of water to ‘fuel’ their vigorous growth, but you don't want to attract fungal infections through over watering. The extra drainage will help to reduce this.

Fill the pots/modules to between half and three quarters full, then using a dibber - or something similar - make a hole in the compost about 1 inch deep – one hole in each container. Now place 2 - 3 melon seeds in each hole, cover with compost and gently water in. To help with germination they will need to be moved to a warm sunny windowsill, preferably above a radiator. Allow the soil to become almost dry before further watering.
After a couple of weeks the seed will begin to show signs of germination. As mentioned before, young melon plants will require plenty of water and nutrition to grow, so feed them regularly with a 50% strength liquid fertilizer. Just make sure that they are never left waterlogged otherwise root damage and fungal infections can occur. At this time you can remove the weakest seedling so that only the strongest remains.

Once the threat of late frosts are over the melon seedlings can be planted outside into their final position but they will need to be hardened off for at least a week or two before hand. They will do best in a sunny, protected position with a slightly acid soil with a pH of between 6.0 and 6.5.

Remember that because of their origins Melons are cold-sensitive so keep an eye on both air and soil temperatures before planting out. They will prefer growing temperatures of between 70° and 80° F, but if cold weather does threaten the young melon plants would do well to have some kind of protection such as a mini polytunnel or cloche. If practical, they would benefit from being planted into a temporary cold-frame which could be removed during the heat of the summer.

For related articles click onto the following links:
What is a Fig?