4 Tastiest Crops Of 2017

It’s been a busy year of writing, studying, volunteering and looking after a young family, but the hard work is all worth it when projects and crops come to fruition. Not all our growing endeavours have been successful – we failed to get even one pear, most of our greengage fruitlets were blasted by a late frost and the outdoor tomatoes quickly succumbed to blight and needed swift processing into green tomato pasta sauce. Last year, around this time, I wrote about our least successful crops, so this year I thought I’d focus on those fruits and vegetables which have grown well and given us plentiful and delicious harvests…

1. Quince ‘Meeches Prolific’

Two years ago we added a quince tree to the newly planted side garden which we share with our neighbours. We’d always wanted our own quinces (and medlars – still a wistful dream) and finally had a place to add another fruit tree. Last spring the quince tree was covered in delicate goblets of pink blossom, which I brought inside to work on in watercolour and which, eventually, resulted in ten pale downy fruits. I couldn’t bring myself to thin or remove these precious quinces and wondered if the young root system might suffer as a result.

Quinces are worth growing just for the soft pink open blossoms

But this spring brought another flush of blossom and a whole basketful of delicious fruit. Some of these had started to split, as had the quinces in my parents’ garden – possibly because wet weather in mid-summer meant the fruits swelled faster than the tight skins could cope with. But we picked the split quinces and stewed them with apple and still had plenty of undamaged fruit which is currently filling the kitchen with its aromatic, spicy scent. We’ll also be making quince jelly (great with crackers and cheese) and cinnamon poached quinces (a special dessert for dark winter evenings).

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Quinces and apples from the garden

2. Potato ‘Nicola’

We grew a lot of potatoes this year – too many! But they are keeping well in the ground and still feeding us each week. We preferred the taste of ‘Nicola’ to the other varieties (‘Jazzy’ and ‘Swift’) and not only because of its superior name (!), but also its delicious taste. ‘Nicola’ is a smooth-skinned second early which has cropped well and produced delicious salad potatoes. The yellow flesh retains its colour throughout cooking and so it looks great on the plate. My ‘Nicola’ potatoes were kindly supplied by Kings Seeds and their seed potatoes are on sale from January 2018.

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Half of our potato crop…

3. Chilli ‘Ubatuba’

All the chillies have done well this year and are still cropping enthusiastically in the greenhouse. Of particular note was the perennially successful ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ – always good for stuffing and the chilli I’d grow if there was only room for one plant (unbearable thought!) Also a heavy cropper, ‘Joe’s Super Long’ is a spicier proposition for chilli jam and curries, but ‘Ubatuba’ has been my favourite new chilli. It produces delightfully squat fruits which are large and mild, with a slightly sharp tang. Another good stuffer, this is one variety I will be attempting to overwinter and definitely including in the reduced (honest!) chilli collection next year.

A selection of our chillies and the ‘Ubatuba’

4. Garlic ‘Persian Star’

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White bulbs with streaked purple cloves inside

Earlier in the year, Julieanne Porter (a lovely gardener and blogger with a self-confessed garlic obsession) kindly sent me some bulbs to plant in containers (and I sent her some of our quinces). She grows many different varieties and was interested in how they would crop elsewhere in the country. ‘Susan Delacour’ wasn’t too successful as some of the bulbs rotted off in late summer, but ‘Persian Star’ created large bulbs, as did my own ‘Red Czech’ and Elephant garlic. The beautiful purple striped cloves of ‘Persian Star’ have a rich taste, but not as strong as some other purple striped varieties. Overall this was a fabulous garlic to grow and cook with – I’ve already got a large bulb stored in the cupboard to plant again in the next few weeks – and the rest of the bulbs will last me through the winter months.

What would you rate as your tastiest crops of the year? Do you have any recommendations for delicious potato, chilli or garlic varieties I can add to my 2018 list? Thank you and Happy Gardening 🙂

My first attempt at depicting the striking goblets of quince blossom

If you’d like to follow my blog, I’ll be writing about my seed choices for next year over the next couple of weeks…

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What’s In A Name? Capsicum Annuum

Chillies are deliciously fascinating – their forms, colours and flavours tantalise the senses; their names alone are enough to make your tongue tingle in anticipation.

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The alluring colours of last year’s harvest

I’ve been growing far more chillies over the past few years than sanity should dictate. I’m drawn in by the evocative colour and spice of names like ‘Bolivian Rainbow’, ‘Numex Twilight’, ‘Machu Pichu’, ‘Trinidad Perfume’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Apache’, ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. There’s a gentle charm to ‘Russian Red Fatty’, ‘Bulgarian Carrot’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry’, and a sense of mystery behind ‘Ubatuba Cambuci’, ‘Albertos Locoto’ and ‘Aji Fantasy’. Once I’ve tasted an exciting name, it’s too late, I’m hooked.

 

 

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This year’s darker crop

Capsicum, the genus including both chillies and sweet peppers, is a member of the Solanaceae family which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade. Chillies originate from South America; a fact reflected in many of their names. The origins of Capsicum are obscure, but it may have come from the Latin capsa ‘box’, referring to the pods (hence the name of chillies such as ‘Aji Bolsa De Dulce’ where bolsa is Spanish for ‘bag’ or ‘purse’ – literally the ‘chilli bag of sweetness’) or the Greek kapto meaning ‘to gulp’.

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Today’s chilli harvest…

When Capsicum is combined with annum ‘by the year’, I like to think of my chillies as my ‘yearly gulp’. I’m not sure whether this refers to the relish with which I sample the first ‘Comet’s Tail’ of the year (a chilli whose parent seeds have spent time in space on the Chinese Academy of Space programme to improve size and yield by exposing them to zero gravity) or the yearly uncomfortable swallowing motion experienced when I see the hundreds of tiny seedlings emerging every spring and wonder how I will:

a) accommodate them all until they can be transferred to the unheated greenhouse

b) explain the chilli invasion to my husband

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Chillies make everything OK!

Next year I’m planning to add a few new chilli labels to the collection with ‘Aji Habanero’, ‘Pearls’, ‘Fresno Supreme’, ‘Trinidad Chilaca’, ‘Loco’, ‘Hot Lemon’ and ‘Poblana Ancho’ and I’ll be sharing seeds from my current plants with others to spread a bit of chilli magic. With names like these, who could resist growing a few… and then a few more? Just don’t tell my husband!

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First batch of chilli jam

If you’d like to follow my blog and read more about my crops for 2018, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Plot To Plate: Tomatillo Salsa

It’s that time of year, when fruit and vegetables are entering and exiting the kitchen faster than bemused lovers in a French farce. Bags of windfall quinces, cooking apples and boxes of plums are competing for space in the fridge and the green tomatoes (salvaged from the outdoor blighty plants) are attracting fruit flies on the work surface. Pasta sauces, stewed fruit, jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys are being bottled, frozen and consumed in large quantities, so it’s a relief occasionally to make a dish which needs no cooking and for which little chopping is required.

Spice It Up

Some of my favourite ingredients at this time of year are the spicy curry vegetables, fruit and herbs which we use for the Thai, Indian and Mexican dishes which we love. This year’s crop of tomatillos started ripening this week and the first tubful arrived from the allotment accompanied by thechorus – supporting roles being provided by ‘Red Czech’ garlic, ‘Numex Twilight’ chilli, red onions, Vietnamese coriander and tomatoes.

Supporting roles are being played by my chillies, red onions and garlic

Tomatillos

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa) is originally from Mexico and belongs to the Solanaceae family along with tomatoes, potatoes, cape gooseberries, aubergines and deadly nightshade. The fruits look similar to green tomatoes (although they can also be purple) and are encased in a papery husk. Unlike cape gooseberries, which I find crop late and produce poor harvests in my garden, tomatillos crop heavily outside, with 2-3 plants providing easily enough fruit for a family. Given space, the stems will bend and trail along the ground, often rooting from the trailing stems, creating even more productive plants. I’ve grown tomatillos for three years and the only issue I’ve encountered was last year when my seeds proved tricky to germinate, but in other years I’ve not had the same problems.

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The related Cape Gooseberry in its similar papery casing

Tangy Taste

These cherry-sized fruits taste like slightly tart tomatoes, but with a lime tang which gives the flavour added depth. I’ve used them fresh in salsa and guacamole, and a summer glut can easily be halved, frozen and then added to soups or casseroles at the beginning of cooking which gives the final dish a mellow fruity flavour.

Tomatillo Salsa

This year’s first tomatillo harvest disappeared swiftly into salsa – served with homemade mackerel pate on toast…

Ingredients

Couple of handfuls of tomatillos removed from their casing and washed (don’t remove until you plan to use them as it help to keep the fruits fresh)

Equal amounts of cherry tomatoes

1-3 chillies depending on variety and personal taste, chopped finely

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small red onion, finely chopped

Juice from 1/2 – 1 lime

Handful of Vietnamese coriander (or annual coriander), finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

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Star of the show – ‘The Tomatillo’

Super-Simple Method

Mix the ingredients together in a blender

Add extra salt, chilli and/or lime juice to taste

Once the salsa is complete, the curtain can rise on a Mexican banquet or it can be enjoyed in my favourite way – with nachos, soured cream and our homegrown pickled chillies for supper with desperados (or in my case, a gluten-free beer like Celia).

Now I’m hungry! Time to make another batch of salsa…

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Our spicy prima donna is ready…

I buy my tomatillo seeds from Suttons (who are also selling tomatillo plants for 2018) and from Real Seeds. I’ve grown purple and green varieties – both crop really well and taste great.

Other ‘plot to plate’ recipes using our garden, allotment and hedgerow harvests include:

Plot to Plate: Courgette Tea Bread

Plot to Plate: Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers

Plot to Plate: Apple and Cinnamon Butter

Plot to Plate: Stuffed Summer Squash

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Tattie Troubles And Other Allotment Affairs

One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…

Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.

Filling Space

Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.

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Potato paradise or monocultural monotony?

But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to  try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.

One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…

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Potatoes through membrane – before they were sun-fried

The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.

In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.

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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing…

Growing Resolutions

Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:

  • to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
  • to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
  • to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime

In Other News…

The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.

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Gentle posy from the cutting patch

The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.

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Iridescent marsh mallow flowers

If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.

I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂

If you’d like to follow the blog and read more my allotment and garden, including more detail in upcoming posts on flowers for cutting and more unusual vegetables, you can subscribe below – thanks very much and happy gardening…

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12 Practical Ways To Create A Modern Kitchen Garden

The RHS Kitchen Garden

What a great sign that the flagship garden at RHS Hampton Court this year is a kitchen garden. I’m excited by edible gardens of all shapes and sizes and like nothing better than to spend an afternoon pottering round an extensive walled kitchen garden in the sunshine, reading the labels and dreaming about having my own walled garden and team of gardeners to maintain it. However I, like most people, have a much more modest garden which also has to accommodate a shed, bins, BBQ, children’s toys and a washing line. And what if your garden is a small patio or even just a windowsill? What if you have no area upon which the sun smiles for six hours of the day? Will kitchen gardening remain a beautiful dream?

In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet Sargeant explores different ways to grow fresh food in small spaces and in cost-efficient ways. This is a garden bursting with ideas, designed to inspire with simple labels throughout explaining the thinking behind the planting. Whether it’s reusing an old fish tank, building a simple compost bin or munching on your shrubs, there are ideas here for everyone to take home…

1. Plant a Living Wall

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This is the edible cooking bench which is the setting of The Hairy Bikers’ Kitchen Garden Live on BBC1 each morning this week

Vertical space is used in different ways in the garden. I loved this edible bench with its mix of viola, sage, curry plant, parsley and oregano. In reality, few of us are likely to have an entire outside bench covered in edibles. More achievable are the inexpensive hanging pockets which can be attached to the wall and filled with edible plants. I liked the way a variety of greens are used here with the silvery curry plant (Helicrysum italicum), dark sage and bright green parsley. The white and blue violas add a sprinkle of colour and their petals can also be used in ice cubes, on salads or crystallised in cakes.

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A simple wall storage unit filled with strawberry pots

This storage unit looks great and something similar (possibly smaller) should be fairly easy to buy or construct and then treat with weatherproof paint, although a piece constructed specifically for outdoor use would no doubt have a longer life. In fact, I’m tempted to throw the children’s toys out of our similar unit and relocate it on the patio as a way of gaining more planting space in the garden!

DSC_0156This runner bean wall is another way to capitalise on the vertical space against a sunny wall. With wires between the top and bottom frames, the beans can very quickly cover the wall and could be planted in pots or the ground. A simple cane structure could also be used, although this metal frame would be strong and durable, and could be removed in the winter months. For added variety, the beans could be interspersed with morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) or sweet peas to add (non-edible) annual colour to the display. This method of growing could also be used with peas or even courgettes, cucumbers and squashes, which love to climb and welcome the extra sunshine accessible in an elevated position. In this way, crops can be grown which otherwise might struggle for space in a small garden.

 2. Grow Meals in Pots

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Container edibles are so accessible for small gardens and community spaces, with the only drawback that they require more watering than crops in the ground. I love growing herbs for teas – lemon verbena, a range of mint, lemon/lime balm (which can cope with some shade), scented-leaved pelargoniums and bergamot. These meal pots are fun for children to grow and provide a delicious small space solution to growing edibles. It could be taken even further with a small tray of pots growing chillies, lemon grass, mint, chives, salad leaves or basil, for simple summer meals and hot drinks or iced infusions.

3. Make a Simple Brick Compost Bin

This compost bin is stylish and easy – designed to grow over time

If there’s no room for a traditional compost bin or the idea of a plastic bin is unpalatable, Juliet offers an alternative in this brick circular compost bin. If you have spare bricks lying around or can get some through a recycling site like Freecycle, this could be a cost effective way to start composting. Best of all, its temporary nature means it can be relocated easily once the compost is ready to use.

4. Colour Your Veggies

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I’ve always been fascinated by colour in edible planting. This kitchen garden uses both colourful vegetables like the blue cabbages, chocolate millet, rainbow chard, purple kale, kohl rabi and pak choi interplanted with vibrant flowers  – edible calendula flowers and dahlias (whose roots are the edible part – although not all varieties are said to taste good). In particular I loved the combination of dark Redbor kale with Dahlia ‘Bishop of Leicester’ with its deep purple foliage and soft pink blooms – no flowerbed could be more beautiful to my eyes.

5. Use Aquaponics

The aquaponics crops looked delicious

I knew very little about aquaponics, so it was interesting to talk to Emerald from Aquaponic Life, a Community Interest Nonprofit Company, who had set up this section of the garden. She told me that aquaponics are a viable option for small gardens or even indoor fishtanks. The closed-loop system involves using the nitrogenous waste excreted by the fish to provide nutrients for the plants which are grown hydroponically (in water without using soil). The plants, in turn, filter the water, which is returned clean for the fish. This continuous cycle uses 90-98% less water than conventional methods. Aquaponic Life run courses in their home town of Brighton to train people about how these systems can be used in homes and gardens. The company is currently crowdfunding to develop their home aquaponics system so that more people can use this sustainable method of food production. They also hope to develop their work in school and universities, and create an urban farm in or near the centre of Brighton as a teaching resource to help put food security back into the hands of families and communities. I will be watching and supporting their progress with interest and if we acquiesce on the pet front with the children next year, maybe Tilapia will be our pet of choice.

6. Munch on Petals

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If you’re going to interplant flowers and vegetables/fruit in a kitchen garden bed, why not use edible flowers to extend the range of crops? Alternatively, your existing garden flowers can provide decorations and salad ingredients throughout the year. In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet has included a colourful flowerbed to attractive pollinators, with the added advantage of using edible flowers. Dianthus, agastache, lavender, calendula, hollyhocks, and campanula are amongst the edible flowers in the garden. We also grow borage and nasturtiums in the vegetable beds to bring in the insects and provide edible flowers for the kitchen.

7. Use Straw Bales

This is an idea I’d like to try out on my allotment next year

This is a new one on me, although I have heard of straw bales being used at the allotment to create hotbeds. Juliet has planted strawberries and melons in compost within the straw bales. I particularly liked the melon ‘Ogen’ which is grafted onto courgette root stock so that it can tolerate the UK climate better. Seeds can even be sown onto bales if a 5cm layer of compost is added first and with the extra heat created, crops like melons are more likely to be successful on straw than in the ground. The only concern I’d have about using straw bales is the possibility of herbicides or in the straw. One solution would be to use organic straw or to investigate the provenance of your material before you use it.

8. Eat your trees and shrubs

With well over 2,500 edible plants across the world, the UK relies on perhaps twenty main crops, ignoring thousands of others which would grow in our climate. Trees and shrubs are a good example, with many common indigenous and non-native species offering food which we choose not to use. Elderflowers and berries, young lime (Tillia cordata), silver birch (Betula pendula) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves, mahonia berries, fuchsia berries and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) berries (cooked in jams) are all examples used in the garden, although if you have found a fuchsia berry which tastes delicious on cereals without the astringent aftertaste which I so dislike, please do let me know.

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9. Try more unusual plants

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Daylilies create drama in the garden and provide food

I love trying out new edibles – both to see how they grow and to experiment in the kitchen. Some of my new acquisitions this year include hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga with edible young shoots and flowerbuds) and Caucasian spinach (Hablizia tamnoides with spinach-like leaves). Juliet has included bamboo, hostas, daylilies and ferns in her garden with useful tips on growing and cooking with them on the labels.

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If you already have bamboo in the garden, this snack should be easy to come by

10. Use herbs as ground cover

Make thyme for herbs

Herbs have so many different uses in the garden – I use them as hedges, in my green roof and for scented ground cover. In this garden both thyme and rosemary are used to cover the ground beneath the trees. As well as looking good, they bring in pollinating insects and provide leaves for stews, soups and marinades. My favourite ground cover herbs are the woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in my gravel path, as they seem pretty indestructible, drought tolerant (once the chamomile is established) and soften the hard edges of the stepping stones with their delicate leaves.

11. Grow dwarf fruit varieties

If it’s too big don’t despair – just choose a dwarf variety

Kitchen gardens have been using dwarf varieties for centuries, but their are still new crops being developed to increase the range of plants available to the small scale gardener. Mulberry Charlotte Russe is the latest example, offering a dwarf shrub (growing to about 1.5m) where other Mulberries would be well beyond the scope of most small gardens. It won the 2017 RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year award and is capable of fruiting in its first year. I have heard reports that the fruit taste is disappointing, but can’t comment as mine was devoured by the slugs in its first few weeks. It is now recovering in the greenhouse, but I’ll need to wait until next year to join the taste testing.

12. Celebrate the shade

Most traditional vegetable benefit from at least six hours of sunshine during the growing season. However, there are exceptions and some more unusual crops which will cope with shady areas. Hostas and ferns are good examples, alongside the more conventional salad greens, Swiss chard, beetroot, kale and pak choi. If the shady area is under an established tree, try creating a raised bed to give added soil depth or planting in seasonal containers.

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Do you have any other top tips for creating a practical, modern kitchen garden? Have you found any of these ideas successful? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment and happy edible gardening.

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court, check out my post on London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

Sitting on top of the flowery mound with my bare feet in the chamomile I could be on a woodland hilltop, but beyond the medlar and hawthorn the bustle of Hampton Court Flower Show is just visible. What Jon Davies and Andreas Christodoulou of Future Gardens have achieved with London Glades is a space which excites the senses whilst calming the soul. Designed for a client who wants to re-engage with nature in a beautiful and wild setting, this garden creates a quiet sanctuary in busy urban surroundings. Almost every plant is edible and most are perennial and low maintenance, relying on the surrounding ecosystem for support.

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The fresh, green woodland in dappled shade

Jon told me they were inspired by Martin Crawford‘s forest garden in Devon and also the permaculture practised by Masanoba Fukuoka in Japan. London Glades feels like a botanical library of fascinating plants in a magical setting – from the shady planting of shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) with their edible newly-emerged fronds to the hilltop grasses and meadow flowers which were attracting the damselflies and hoverflies; the whole garden has a sense of being in the moment. Jon has purposely introduced some plants which are not at their best – some have gone over, others are not yet flowering, which creates credibility in a garden that values food production – from roots, leaves, buds and fruits as well as flowers – equally with aesthetics.

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The damselflies enjoying the garden as much as I am

The raised areas of the garden are constructed in the German tradition of ‘hugelkultur’ which roughly translates as ‘mound culture’. This involves creating mounds of wood and green waste covered with top soil to mirror the components of the woodland environment. As the material decays it creates a consistent long-term supply of nutrients for the plants which last for twenty years or longer. Heat is created by decomposition, allowing a longer growing season and as the wood breaks down, soil aeration is improved, thus removing the need to dig the beds. Water is absorbed by the mounds and released in drier periods, so irrigation should not be required, except in long periods of drought and they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. So the ‘hugelkultur’ element of the garden works alongside the creation of a self-sustaining plant ecosystem to minimise the need for human intervention whilst maximising the environmental benefits.

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An example of hugelkultur to show how the mounds were constructed

The detail in the garden is magnificent and deserving of the Gold Medal it achieved. The spreading canopy of limes, crab apples and quince creates dappled shade under which the edible crops of horseradish, strawberries, fuchsia, bettony, skirret, masterwort and wineberries are thriving.

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Lush shady planting

On the mound, lychnis, monarda, oregano, rosemary, mint and chamomile add their aroma to the heady mix of damp woodland and warm hilltop scents.

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The mound is a peaceful and productive place to relax

Swales (carefully positioned ditches) collect water for the garden and are filled with moisture loving plants and logs growing shiitake mushrooms. Around the boundary of the garden is an edible hedge, providing berries and fruit for the client and food and habitat for wildlife. But it was the ground cover that drew me into the garden with an almost reverent feeling as I walked barefoot across the alternative lawn of heath pearlwort (Sagina subulata).

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The garden is cool and soft underfoot

This delightful evergreen carpet can withstand fairly heavy footfall, tolerates drought or moist conditions, has tiny white flowers in later spring and early summer, and feels soft and springy beneath the feet. Around the margins, a tapestry of other intricate ground cover plants like Leptinella squalida with its tiny fern-like fingers, succulent white stonecrop, red clover and low-growing thymes provide miniature vignettes in which the higher planting layers recede, leaving only the magnified colours and textures of the forest floor.

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Fascinating detail on the woodland floor

The dense matrix of planting in London Glades gives the garden a vibrant energy. The visitor is encouraged to move lightly around the space, stopping to sit and relax on one of the large smooth boulders, the only non-plant material in the garden. As I sat, I considered the other reason I felt at home in this garden – there is clearly an educational mission behind London Glades – to show an alternative to the traditional kitchen garden, to showcase how forest gardening can provide sustainable, wildly beautiful, productive spaces in an urban setting, and to offer an alternative way for gardens to connect us with the landscape.

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‘Taunton Deane’ perennial kale just below the mound

The message is conveyed subtly – at first glance the garden could appear to be a traditional woodland with just a few rhubarb and kale plants visible to the casual observer. However, London Glades offers practical ways to suit forest gardening to small, urban plots, using readily available plants and ingenious, yet traditional methods of landscaping and planting like ‘Hugelkultur’ and swales. Jon is hoping to relocate elements of the garden to Mind charity in Harringay, where it will no doubt continue to provide a peaceful environment and an educational resource.

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The winding path through London Glades

Owning a garden like London Glades would certainly be an education, but it would be a gentle, life-affirming way to engage with the land and the sustainable, low-maintenance approach would allow the client to develop their stewardship of their garden. I like this soft approach to learning and have followed similar lines in my own ‘hidden allotment‘ front garden which uses similar plants to my neighbours’ gardens and appears to follow traditional ornamental design, but incorporates many edibles which forest gardener Stephen Barstow would call ‘edimentals’. Jon explained that clients would receive a bespoke book with the initial chapters explaining the thinking behind forest gardening and the second half offering recipes to help with harvesting and using the ‘gourmet’ ingredients which would be available in the garden throughout the year.

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The beautiful, wood-bound guide book

This would be an invaluable resource in a process of learning about the plants and how to make use of them. London Glades takes you on an edible journey of discovery through different habitats and plant ecosystems. The stewardship of such a garden would be certainly be an inspiring and fulfilling adventure.

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Soft pink monarda creates a gentle atmosphere in the understorey

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court over the next few days and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs, do subscribe below…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

On Tuesday evening, David’s Bookshop in Letchworth hosted a talk by botanist, writer and broadcaster James Wong on his new bestselling book. As usual James gave a lively and interesting talk in which he demonstrated a broad knowledge of the scientific data behind the ideas in the book. How To Eat Better is a cookbook with a difference. Inspired by scientific data, James discusses how to SELECT, STORE and COOK food in ways which maximise its nutritional value. The recipes are fresh and simple with old favourites like ‘One-Pot Mac and Cheese’ and new ideas such as ‘Blueberry and Chilli Cheese Toastie’ and ‘Double Sweet Potato Pie’. I rate my recipe books based on how many pages display the evidence of the meals I’ve made with them. So far for How To Eat Better it’s looking good – not only has it been fascinating reading outside the kitchen, but at least two pages are now indelibly marked with tomato juice and mustard – not bad for a book I bought this Tuesday!

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I wasn’t that impressed with purple sweet potatoes last time I tried them, but this orange and purple sweet potato pie looks delicious and I’ll definitely be trying it (image from the book)

Coming from a family of scientists (although I sit on the fence with a literary and horticultural background), some of whom work in science communication, I find James’ evidence-based approach to nutrition refreshing in a world where ever-changing sensationalist headlines inform many people’s food choices. Rather than beginning with nutritional rules and then searching for data with which to support these ideas, it seems sensible to start with the data and see what it tells us. I particularly liked the table explaining ‘The Hierarchy Of Nutritional Evidence’ which explores systematic reviews, clinical trials, observational studies, animal studies and test-tube studies considering the methodology of each type of research and the strength of the evidence each provides. This knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ways in which scientists reach conclusions, helping people ‘sift through fact and fantasy in the next nutritional headline’. I was also impressed, although not surprised, by the non-dogmatic approach to the selection, storage and cooking of the foods studied in the book. James explained that the methods suggested should be viewed as ways of ‘tweaking’ what we already do in the kitchen – small, practical changes rather than a radical overhaul of how we view our food.

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Choose red chillies and peppers over green and yellow to up carotene and polyphenol levels by up to 5 times

The kids were fascinated by the idea that fruit and vegetables are living organisms which are affected by the chemical changes initiated by different storage and cooking methods. Although this seems like a rather obvious point, we do have a tendency to consider these foods as somehow unaffected by their environment once they are no longer growing on the plant or in the ground. I already keep our tomatoes out of the fridge as this allows the fruit to ripen, become sweeter and develop twice the levels of lycopene, but I wasn’t aware that the shape of a tomato is important in terms of its phytonutrient levels too. These chemicals are largely concentrated in the skin of the fruit, so baby plum tomatoes with their high ratio of skin to flesh, pack a denser phytonutrient punch than beefsteak tomatoes. The book also explains that lycopene levels almost double again upon cooking – another easy way to increase the nutritional value of these popular fruits.

The colour of fruit and vegetables is another interesting topic explored in some detail in the book. I love growing different varieties of colourful crops (‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes, ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Kohlibri’ purple kohl rabi), so the fact that most colourful varieties (the book discusses pink grapefruit, purple cauliflower and black rice among others) contain higher levels of nutrients than their white counterparts means that growing these types of fruit and vegetable makes good nutritional sense as well as being engaging for both children and adults.

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The darker the carrot, the more polyphenols it contains

Cooking is another area where science offers interesting data about our food and whether nutrient levels are higher (and more available for our bodies to absorb) when fruit and vegetables are eaten raw or cooked in different ways. Broccoli, for example, is better eaten raw if you are after higher levels of beneficial isothiocyanates as cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for producing these chemicals. However, a team at the University of Reading found that adding a tiny amount of powdered mustard seeds can reverse this process as they contain a heat-resistant form of the enzyme which allows the reaction to occur. Magic! And raw broccoli chopped finely and left for a couple of hours contains more isothiocyanates, making it even better for you. Unlike broccoli, evidence suggests that blueberries are more phytonutrient rich when lightly cooked in the microwave for 3 minutes.

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Purple Sprouting Broccoli is best as fresh as possible

Some sections of the book confirmed what I already do in the kitchen (like rushing the purple sprouting broccoli in from the garden and lightly steaming it) whilst other information challenged my preconceived ideas about food (that buying local always means fruit and vegetables are better for you). But what is most refreshing about How To Eat Better is that it isn’t an instruction manual on better eating, but a way of transferring ideas based on scientific research into practical advice for the kitchen. To what extent you choose to adopt changes to selecting, storing and cooking food is up to you, but you’ll end the book more knowledgeable about the biology and chemistry behind your food. You’ll have a range of tasty, healthy recipes to inspire you to eat more fruit and vegetables however you decide to select, store or cook them and because James is donating all the royalties from the book to UNICEF, you’ll also have helped fight hunger across the world too.

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Green tomatoes like ‘Green Zebra’ contain high levels of tomatine which may inhibit cancer cell growth

The book is currently available on Amazon for £7.99 for the Kindle edition or £6.99 for the hardback (a good discount on the £20 RRP) – to order a copy, click on the image below…

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If you’d like to read more of the book reviews in Write Plant, Write Place, you could take a look at the following articles:

Around the World in 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

 

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

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Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

If you’d like to read about other more unusual crops, you could try:

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