It was not by choice I found myself standing in a delightful little garden centre last week. Caught in a lashing hailstorm, I followed my friend Sarah’s suggestion of “quick, let’s duck in here” and before I knew it I was face to face with what I’ve been actively avoiding for some time now.

It was a friendly little family-run garden centre, just the sort of place that I would buy from if I wasn’t sworn off spending anything on gardening stuff. As the warmth (and feeling) slowly returned to my weather-battered body, I began to take in row upon row of gardening instruments, gadgets and other gardening delights. I trailed after Sarah as she made a dash for the seed potatoes which were temptingly displayed in a line of crisp brown sacks – the tubers poking out the top for all to see.

I thought about my own little stash of ‘Anya’ and ‘Orla’ new potatoes which I’ve been growing and saving for the past three years, and checked myself to see how I felt about the wide choice on display in front (and all around) me … was I tempted at all?

I didn’t seem to be, but I was curious. I decided to browse the entire shop just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d really like to have. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I experienced no temptation whatsoever. There was nothing I needed and actually, the thought of some forthcoming swapsies at a “seedy Sunday” event appealed much more. (You can find the nearest seed swap event here.)

Nathan Richards at Troed y Rhiw farm is an expert aubergine grower.

Nathan Richards of Troed y Rhiw farm is an expert aubergine grower.
Photograph: Kim Stoddart

That said – this all got me thinking. Now I’m into the swing of the basics of gardening for free (compost, leaf mould and seed saving) I know I can maintain a healthy soil, and that when I plant seed it will germinate (almost always). So I have scope to get a lot more adventurous with what (and how) I grow and that is a lot more exciting that anything I could buy.

One vegetable I’ve never had much success with and yet love to eat is aubergine. So to improve my efforts I called in on Nathan Richards at Troed y Rhiw farm, organic growers in Ceredigion, Wales. They produce the most enormous aubergines I have ever seen so are well placed to point me in the right direction.

Aubergines grown at Nathan's organic farm

Aubergines among other organic vegetables grown at Troed y Rhiw farm.
Photograph: Kim Stoddart

Like peppers and chillies, the aubergine (aka eggplant) needs a long growing season, so Nathan germinates his seeds around mid-February. As the young plants need to be kept warm – this could mean they’ll have upwards of 400 cluttered about their bedroom during a cold snap. They really do love their aubergines…

For us non-commercial growers however, we could just use a heated propagator or airing cupboard to germinate the seeds any time from now, keeping a small number of young plants inside to protect them from the cold.

Aubergines demand to be in a warm and sunny spot, so Nathan grows them in polytunnels. He recommends that some kind of greenhouse or large-enough cloche would be useful to help boost results – although bear in mind they should grow to waist height, and pollinating insects must be able to get to the plants if they are to fruit.

I also think a sunny, sheltered spot outside could work well, although they don’t like getting too wet. I know the feeling. It’s advisable to water them from below, so this is another reason why some form of protection can help. They don’t pinch out their plants at Troed Y Rhiw Farm as it would take too long. I was also delighted to hear that they don’t use fertiliser of any kind other than maybe a bit of comfrey tea and still get fantastic, high yielding results because their soil is so fertile. That sounds like my type of growing.


Seeds of the edible Indian gourd dudhi are available to members of the Heritage Seed Library.
Photograph: Heritage Seed Library
Aubergine 'Szechuan'

Aubergine ‘Szechuan’ from the Heritage Seed Library.
Photograph: Heritage Seed Library

Feeling ambitious; I decided to contact the Heritage Seed Library to see what they could challenge me (as a seed guardian) to grow and save for them this year. Aubergine-wise they have ‘Szechuan’ and ‘Turkish Orange’, while an edible Indian gourd called dudhi sounds interesting, and has a lot of reputed health benefits. Their version is named after the man who introduced it to the library – thanks Mo Sayed.

Then there’s the fantastically multi-coloured ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’ sweetcorn, which I’m going to have a stab at saving – despite stating categorically before that it couldn’t be done. Apparently I may be able to get away with collecting viable(ish) seed from “just” 20 plants, so we shall see.

I don’t care anymore what the weather’s doing outside because all this planning has given me a distinctly warm feeling where it counts.

If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to investigate in my blog this year then I’d love to hear your ideas.