The record for the biggest pumpkin in the world is a holy grail for giant vegetable growers: these days you need a forklift truck just to get your pumpkin to the showground for weighing.
Most of us can't manage pumpkins quite that big, but it's fun to see how big a monster you can manage. A pumpkin growing competition is also a great way to get the kids involved in gardening.
In our Mullingar garden centre you'll find all you need for your crack at conquering the giant pumpkin world: just follow our easy steps to success.
Choose the right seed: 'Atlantic Giant' is a recognised monster pumpkin, but other varieties to try include 'Hundredweight' and 'Mammoth'.
Sow seed: in April sow one seed to a 10cm pot and keep in a frost-free greenhouse, heated propagator or on a sunny windowsill.
Keep the plants warm: cold will set back growth so bring your pumpkin indoors if nights are cold. Pot on into larger containers as it grows.
Dig a pumpkin pit: in late May, dig a hole in the garden about 1 metre wide and deep. Fill with a 50:50 mix of compost and well-rotted farmyard manure, and add slow-release fertiliser.
Plant out: Plant your young pumpkin plant into the pit once all threat of frost has passed, and cover with a lantern cloche until the plant grows too big.
Feed and water: Make sure your pumpkin never goes short of water, and feed weekly with liquid seaweed. When it starts flowering, switch to tomato food to encourage fruits.
Pinch out surplus flowers: After three fruits have formed, pinch out others as they appear. Eventually, select the biggest one and remove the rest so the plant puts its energy into just one fruit.
Lift the fruit: raising your pumpkin off the ground onto a pallet or straw helps get the air underneath it, ripening the skin and avoiding rotting.
- Hire that forklift truck! Once your pumpkin has mellowed to a rich orange in around October, it's time to harvest.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about growing giant vegetables in your garden.
Grow bags are incredibly useful throughout the garden: just pop them anywhere you want to grow plants but don't have soil, like the edge of a patio or outside the back door. They give you an instant growing space for sweet peas, annual climbers like morning glory, or productive herbs, vegetables or even fruit.
We stock grow bags in our garden centre all year round, as well as useful accessories like frames that clip over them to support your plants as they grow and covers to help them blend more easily into the garden. Here are some top tips to make sure you get the best from your grow bags throughout the year.
- Fluff up before planting: When you get your grow bags home, plump them up like a pillow before you use them. This breaks up the compost inside where it's become compacted in the stack, letting in air and making it easier for your plants' roots to penetrate.
Stack several together: If you're growing big plants like tomatoes, consider stacking two or even three grow bags on top of each other to give your plants a better root run. Cut out a long rectangle from the first grow bag, then put another on the top, cutting squares from the underside to let the roots through.
- Feed regularly: Plants in grow bags rely on you for feed and water, so make sure your plants never go short. A weekly general-purpose liquid seaweed feed keeps most plants going; switch to high-phosphate tomato feed once they start flowering. You'll find both in our garden centre.
Use a second time for salads: Once your peppers and cucumbers have finished, don't throw out your grow bag. Top up with compost if necessary (you may need to cut a longer rectangle from the top) and re-sow with baby-leaf salads to see you through autumn.
- Recycle the compost: When you've finally finished with your grow bag, empty the spent compost on your compost heap or just straight onto your flower beds as a soil-improving mulch.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about growing in grow bags.
Leaving soil bare to the elements for any length of time is a recipe for disaster. Soil structure is a delicate thing, and if it's pounded into a hard cap by relentless rain, baked by the sun and then colonised by tough, hard-to-eradicate weeds it's no wonder you struggle to get anything to grow by spring.
There's an easy, economic way to protect your soil for long periods of time, while improving its structure and feeding it, too. Green manures are beneficial plants grown like crops on vacant land. All have some sort of good effect on soil, and they're so densely-sown they keep the worst of the weather at bay.
In our Mullingar garden centre you'll find several varieties of green manure as large packets of seed, to broadcast and rake in as soon as the land falls empty. They germinate in next to no time, covering the ground rapidly with greenery so weeds don't get a look-in.
When you want to use that patch again, shear off the top growth and add it to the compost heap. Then roughly dig the roots of the green manure into the ground. Allow them a few weeks to rot back into the soil and they'll release nitrogen for your plants to use later in the season.
Here are five green manures to try in your garden:
Buckwheat: A delicate, graceful plant that's quick-growing, with lush, nitrogen-rich leaves. It's frost-tender, so only use it between April and August.
Phacelia: Pretty in flower and adored by bees, phacelia is grown as a summer green manure, though its frosted stems act like a blanket through winter.
Grazing rye: A useful all-rounder which looks like coarse grass and stands all winter. Deep-rooted so it'll break up claggy soils.
Winter tares: Another good choice for protecting soils over winter, this broad bean relative absorbs nitrogen from the air to release into the ground.
- Clover: Choose your clover to match your soil: alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum) combats wet, acid soils while crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) is good for light soils.
Going home-grown for Christmas makes the holiday a real celebration of your garden's abundance. And one of the nicest things you can do with all those delicious and beautiful things you can pick from your garden is to hang them in your home as very special decorations.
In our garden centre you'll find plants for pickable Christmas decorations, as well as pinecones, seasonal ornaments, silver and gold spray paint, tinsel and baubles – in short, everything you need to put the finishing touches on your fresh-from-the-garden Christmas. You're only limited by your imagination - so here are a few suggestions to get you started.
- Home-grown baubles: The spherical flowerheads on the ornamental onion Allium christophii dry to starburst seedheads that look fantastic sprayed silver and hung from ribbons.
Christmas tree chains: a packet of red popcorn seed, available from our garden centre, grows just like sweetcorn: string the pretty pink kernels into long tinsel-like decorations.
- Tussie-mussies: pick spicily fragrant sprigs of witch hazel, viburnum or Christmas box and tie together with herbs into a little Victorian-style bouquet to hang from the ceiling.
Wreaths: for this you'll need berrying holly, ivy and a wreath frame, all available from our garden centre. Weave the greenery onto the frame along with pinecones, brilliant red chillies and perhaps some dried orange Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) and hang on your door to welcome Christmas visitors.
- Banister garlands: just like wreaths, but this time wound around your banisters and bound in place with florists' wire. Add pine branches, berries, dried flowers and rosehips to complete the picture.
Golden bells: take three pinecones and spray them gold, then wire the stems together in threes to make a little bundle that looks just like bells to hang in corners or from the ceiling.
- Floating flowers: choose a shallow glass bowl from the range in our garden centre, fill it with water and float Christmas hellebore flowers and candles on it for a uniquely beautiful centrepiece for your Christmas table.
Growing your own food is one of life's great pleasures, and like most good things, it's worth doing well. A great way of measuring your progress is to pit yourself against the old-timers - producers of football-sized onions and metre-long carrots.
It takes courage to exhibit your produce, but it's a lot of fun. Once you take the plunge and enter your first show, you'll be warmly welcomed in, with lots of advice and if you're lucky, hints on how to grow bigger and better next year.
Your local gardening club is likely to hold annual competitions, and many allotment sites have much-anticipated shows for plot holders, too. Or try your hand at the amateur growers' competition at the RHS Malvern Autumn Show, now including the National Giant Vegetable Championships.
So here are a few tips to help kick off your glittering career as a champion veg-grower.
Choose the right variety: For competition veg, it's all in the genes. You'll find plenty of veg seeds with a big reputation in your favourite garden centre: try 'Ailsa Craig' onions, or 'St Valery' carrots.
Start early: Champion growers traditionally sow their onion seeds on Boxing Day – giving them the maximum possible time to swell into those ginormous bulbs.
Use crowbars: Not to sabotage the competition, but to make long, deep holes where you're going to grow your giant parsnips or carrots. Fill with compost and sow on top for super-straight roots.
Grow in containers: The legendary Medwyn Williams, winner of multiple Chelsea gold medals, grew all his parsnips in drainpipes. Use a sandy compost mix and just tip out at competition time.
Feed, feed, feed: Whether it's giant pumpkins, marrows or runner beans, all that growth requires a lot of fuel. Plenty of manure before you start, plus regular liquid feeds pump up the volume to the max.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about a container vegetable garden.
When space is really limited, gardening needs ingenuity. With a few clever tricks and some innovative gadgets, though, you can turn even a balcony into a productive garden overflowing with fruit, vegetables and herbs.
You'll find plenty of useful gear to help you build your balcony garden in our garden centre in Mullingar, from planters to dwarf apple trees specially bred to grow in restricted spaces. Here are our top tips for balcony success.
Use large planters wherever possible, so they act more like raised beds than containers and give your veg a longer root run. Generally, the larger the container you give your veg, the happier they'll be: if your balcony is high-rise, though, get a structural engineer in first to check it can take the weight of containers full of damp compost and plants.
Use successional sowing to keep your pots working hard all year. As soon as you harvest a crop, re-sow the container or replant with vegetable plug plants for a really quick replacement. That way you'll always have new crops growing up as you eat your way through the ones you sowed earlier.
Grow container veg varieties which are better suited to growing with their roots restricted. Good choices are Courgette 'Patio Star', Aubergine 'Ophelia', Broad Bean 'The Sutton' and Pea 'Bingo' – all grow small but have bumper crops for their size.
Don't forget the fruit as there are plenty of long-cropping varieties which grow quite happily in containers including gooseberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. Strawberries do better in pots, as they're off the ground away from slugs; and you can even grow 'Minarette' apple and pear trees, trained on a single stem.
- Take care over feeding and watering as your plants depend entirely on you for their every need. Automatic watering systems share the load: you'll find timers, hoses and dripper systems in our garden centre. Add a weekly liquid feed when you water: liquid seaweed acts as a general-purpose tonic, but when plants are flowering a high-potash tomato feed encourages plenty of fruit.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about growing fruit and vegetables on a balcony.
Of all the fruit you can grow in the garden, a grapevine is among the most productive and beautiful. All you need is a sunny wall, fence or pergola for it to scramble up and it'll cheerfully cover the whole thing with big elegant leaves turning brilliant colours in autumn, and of course fat clusters of fruit dripping with sweetness.
There are dozens of varieties of grapevine and we've got a great selection in our garden centre in Mullingar. For sweet fruit for the table, go for a dessert variety: 'Brandt' has small but very sweet dark-skinned grapes (and spectacular autumn colour) while 'Phoenix' is a reliable modern variety good for both eating and winemaking.
If it's a vineyard you're after, there's an even wider choice. 'Seyval' makes a light, fruity wine; while 'Pinot Noir' ripens well in a good summer for a classic deep red claret.
Here are our top tips for growing successful grapevines:
- Choose a sunny site, ideally a south- or southwest facing wall and sheltered from the wind. Vines do best in free-draining soil like sand or chalk: if you're gardening on clay dig in a barrowload of grit before planting.
Add well-rotted farmyard manure (found in our garden centre) to improve soil before planting, as grapevines are in the ground a long time.
- Add a handful of slow-release fertiliser like pelleted chicken manure or bonemeal to keep your plant happy all season.
Plant when vines are dormant – from late autumn till early spring, as long as the ground isn't waterlogged or frozen.
- Put up a sturdy training system before you plant: stretch wires 30cm apart up a fence, or attach trellis. You'll find all you need in our garden centre.
Water thoroughly in dry weather: if grapevines get parched at the roots they're more likely to suffer from mildew, ruining your crop.
- Prune each winter once the vine has dropped all its leaves and is completely dormant to remove some of the year's vigorous growth and keep the plant productive and healthy.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about growing grapevines.
Weeds, so the saying goes, are just plants in the wrong place. The trouble is, there are so many of them. However much you might think dandelions are pretty, or ground elder has elegant leaves, if you stop to admire them too long you (and your plants) will quickly be overrun.
You'll probably never be completely free of weeds, but it's quite possible to keep them well under control. In our garden centre you'll find all you need from weedkillers for persistent thugs, to hoes to deal with tiny annual weed seedlings before they get their heads too far above ground.
For a really effective anti-weed strategy, tailor your approach to the weed you're tackling: here's how.
Annual weeds: the easiest to tackle as long as you have a routine. Every week without fail, whether it looks like it needs it or not, use a Dutch hoe to slice through emerging seedlings just below the surface.
Deep-rooted dandelions and docks: these can regenerate from the tip of the root left in the ground, so dig down deep enough to get the whole thing out, or spot-treat with a glyphosate-based weedkiller.
Smothering bindweed: The twining stems of bindweed are a menace in the garden, strangling your plants and smothering everything, Hand-weeding rarely controls it properly: in our garden centre you'll find hand-held glyphosate gel weedkiller treatments to paint on the leaves without endangering nearby plants.
Persistent ground elder and couch grass: These won't kill your plants but they do compete with them for water and nutrients. Their long, brittle roots mean they often survive digging out by hand. Spray with glyphosate-based weedkiller, or keep them out with thick weed-control fabric, available in our garden centre.
- Thuggish brambles: Often a problem on neglected ground, brambles colonise large areas by arching stems which root where they touch the ground. Don a thick pair of gauntlets and wade in with loppers to cut them back, then dig out rootstocks one by one, or paint the stumps with a brushkiller treatment like SBK.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about dealing with weeds in your garden.
Few plants are as easy-going as herbs. You can pop them in any spare corner and they'll settle in without fuss. Many of the herbs you'll find in our Mullingar garden centre are evergreen, too, so they'll perform all year without demanding much in return.
But to encourage your herbs to produce plenty of fresh growth for you to pick, it's worth paying them a little extra attention. Follow our top tips to enjoy heavenly herbs all year round.
Improve drainage: shrubby herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme hail from the poor, stony soils of the Mediterranean – and that's what they'll enjoy in your garden. If your soil is slow-draining clay, dig in bagged grit, available from our garden centre, before planting.
Sun or shade? Most herbs like to bake and prefer a spot in full sun, but there are exceptions. Parsley bolts if it's too hot, and chervil too prefers shade. Other herbs for shady spots include lemon balm, sorrel and sweet woodruff.
Sow annual herbs little and often: coriander, dill and chervil are quick-growing, leafy herbs, ready within a couple of months of sowing. Make sure you don't run out by sowing a new batch every month, ready to take over once your first harvest is finished.
Give flowering herbs a haircut: mint, marjoram and thyme flower profusely in early summer, and bees adore the blossoms. After the flowers are over, though, trim back the plants by about a quarter to encourage a new flush of leafy growth.
Repot mint every year: always grow mint in containers, as it's incredibly invasive (sink the pot among your other herbs for a more natural look). To keep it healthy, knock the plant out of the pot each spring, divide and replant in fresh compost.
- Bring in frost-tender herbs: lemongrass, French tarragon and stevia don't tolerate temperatures below zero, so each year before the first frost dig them up and pot up in compost with added grit for drainage. Overwinter in a frost-free greenhouse or on a windowsill till late spring.
Please ask the staff in our garden centre in Mullingar for more information and advice about growing herbs.
One of the real skills of good vegetable growing is the ability to time the cycle of sowing, growing and harvesting so you always have a steady stream of goodies to pick fresh from your garden in Mullingar.
It takes good planning and a few canny tricks to make sure you always have just the right amount to pick, ready when you want it, every month of the year. Here are our top tips to help you keep the crops coming.
- Sow often: sow everything at once and you'll have loads to pick in a few weeks' time – but once you've finished, your veg-growing year is over.
- You can sow seed successfully from March until July, so make the most of it and stagger your sowings, putting in a new batch every three to four weeks right across the season. That way you always have some crops ready to pick, some growing on and some just sown, and you'll extend your harvest right into autumn.
- Don't sow too much: sow a whole row of lettuces, and they'll all be ready at the same time – and that's a lot of lettuce. Plant six lettuces every three weeks, though, and you'll have two lettuces to eat every week for as long as you want them, as your next crop is ready just as you finish eating the first.
- And there's no rule that says you have to sow a whole row, either: half a row of carrots, beetroot or salad leaves, sown direct every three or four weeks, gives you a much more manageable quantity.
- Sow different varieties: many vegetables come in early, mid-season and late varieties, meaning they mature at different rates. That's a gift for you when you're trying to spread your harvest over a long time. Early carrots like 'Nantes 2', for example, crop in about eight weeks. Plant one row of these plus one row of a maincrop variety like 'Autumn King' – ready in 10 weeks – and you'll be picking carrots for an extra fortnight. The same technique works for potatoes, beetroot, potatoes, calabrese and sprouts.
- Grow long-cropping vegetables: choose your veg types carefully, making the most of veg which give you pickings over a long period.
- Cut-and-come-again lettuces, like 'Salad Bowl', are invaluable: you pick them leaf by leaf and they just keep giving for months on end. Calabrese, too, is a great long-cropping vegetable: once you've cut the main central head, the stem keeps producing smaller sideshoots giving you a second and third harvest.
- Use your spare spots: when a spot comes free in the garden, plant it up right away. Plug plants are ideal for this: either grow your own or buy them ready-to-plant from your favourite garden centre.
- You can make the most of the space underneath larger, slower-growing plants like big, hefty Brussels sprouts, too. Sow a row of baby-leaf salads between your newly-planted sprouts plants and you can pick and eat them long before the Brussels get big, doubling the harvest from the same space.
Gardeners demand a lot of pruning tools, especially in winter when there are roses, clematis, apple trees and fruit bushes to do. There are other cutting tools in regular use, too: hedging and topiary shears, and blades you might not think of as blades like hoes and border spades, both of which need sharp edges to cut through the earth.
Keeping your tools razor-sharp is key to efficient working. Blunt tools take more effort to use, and worse, they can tear at branches rather than cutting them cleanly, causing snags and ragged edges that invite rots and other infections to set in. Hoes and spades, too, are far more effective if they're sharp enough to cut through obstacles rather than bludgeoning them with brute force.
You'll find all you need to keep your tools honed to perfection in our garden centre Mullingar, from sharpening stones to specialist sharpening tools for curved blades such as secateurs. To use them well and get your tools cutting cleanly, follow our top tips:
Work out which side has the flat cutting surface: for bypass secateurs, this is the curving blade that scissors past the 'anvil' one. This is the edge you need to keep sharp.
Work at an angle of about 30° to the blade and run the sharpening stone along the angled side – if you look at the blade sideways on you'll find out which that is. Work from hinge to tip, always moving the stone away from you to avoid hurting yourself. Keep doing this for a few minutes and you'll find you have a rough edge forming on the underside as tiny shards of metal shear off.
Use a circular motion to gently remove this burr from the other side of the blade, though working flat to the blade this time as you don't want to take the edge off again.
- Consider a professional tool-sharpening service for larger-bladed items like hedging shears or petrol-driven hedge trimmers. These only need doing around once a year and it's easier to get the professionals in.
Please ask the staff in our garden centre in Mullingar for more information and advice about sharpening gardening tools.
Planting a veg garden really kicks off the year. By the end of March you'll have bought new potatoes and onion sets from our garden centre and tucked them into their new homes, and with a bit of luck you'll be getting out those seed packets you chose from our extensive range of fruit and veg to sow the first hardy crops like carrots, peas, cabbages and beetroot.
But what happens when that first flush of productivity is over? Once you've harvested those new potatoes it's still only June, there's half the growing year left but you've got bare patches opening up all over the place.
Planting for a continuous harvest throughout the year is one of the holy grails of veg gardening. With a little planning and some tricks of the trade you too can avoid boom and bust, evening out your harvest so there's always something to pick somewhere on the plot. Here's how:
Successional sowing: Fast-growing veg like baby-leaf salads and carrots are ready within weeks, so repeat sow just half a row at a time every month through the season to keep them coming.
Intercropping: use every inch of space by sowing quick-growing carrots, spinach or beetroot among slower-growing brassicas: that way while they're growing, you get an extra harvest from the same space.
Plug plants: in our garden centre you'll find a huge range of young vegetable plants, ideal for dropping into gaps opened up by harvesting lettuces, cabbages or leeks for a near-instant second harvest.
Sow different varieties: many types of veg, like carrots, calabrese and sprouts, have early, mid-season and late varieties: sow all three and they'll mature at different rates, extending your harvesting time.
- Remember winter: you won't feel like sowing crops for winter while it's still spring, but if you don't your harvest will stop dead in October. Plant purple-sprouting broccoli, winter cabbage, leeks and parsnips in March to keep the veg garden pumping out the harvest through the chill.
Please ask the staff in our Mullingar garden centre for more information and advice about keeping a continuous harvest from your vegetable garden throughout the year.