Sunday, 18 January 2009

What to grow in your garden

It's hard to think about spring at the moment. The -20 C temperatures and thick snow of a couple of weeks ago have been replaced by gusty strong winds and torrential rain.

But spring will, I hope, be here fairly soon and I'm beginning to think of what to put in the garden to help out the food bills.

My strategy is to grow things which have two characteristics -

  1. they're easy to grow and undemanding. I prefer perennials.
  2. they're expensive in the shops. If I'm going to spend my time labouring in the garden, I'm not going to do it to grow five quid's worth of cabbage - but growing thirty quid's worth of cherry tomatoes or figs is worth my while. Or I can't get them in the shops - which is the case with some varieties of salad leaf.
So my top fruit and veg are going to be:
  • strawberries. They're not difficult, particularly if you grow them through black plastic to prevent weeds coming through.
  • raspberries. Need a bit of pruning and staking, but otherwise you can just leave them. We are training to train our friendly, fluffy beasts as attack cats, and we do have a half-tame owl, but we've found either netting the raspberries or hanging up CDs is still needed to stop the birds making off with our crop.
  • figs. Believe it or not, these will grow well as far north as Norwich, though it can take time for your tree to get established. Look for a south facing brick wall and it will reflect heat on to your fig tree. They positively hate being cossetted; the worse you treat them the happier they are.
  • Tomatoes. I have no luck with seeds and seedlings so I buy six or twelve plants from the local nursery, and we don't have to buy tomatoes in summer at all. I don't bother with beef tomatoes like Marmande any more - I just grow cherry tomatoes, which give you a longer harvest rather than nothing for ages and then a sudden glut. Get some yellow and pear varieties for a classy effect in your salads.
  • Salad leaves. We grow cress, lettuces of various types, chicory, and rocket. Rocket in particular grows like a weed and is incredibly cheap. Mustard is another 'weed' that grows well, and you might like to try asian vegetables like mizuna and pak choi -though I've found pak choi is a bit tricky.
  • Salad potatoes. There's no point growing great big spuds for roasting or baking, but grow your own 'ratte', 'charlotte' or 'belle de fontenay' and you'll have lovely new potatoes.
  • Green beans. I actually loathe runner beans, so I grow little French haricot varieties - there's one called 'haricot beurre' which has a soft buttery taste and is such light green it's almost yellow. Three or four short rows will feed two people for most of the summer. Plant more if you want to can your own haricots for next year. (You can also leave the last crop to ripen if you want to dry the beans for winter use.)
  • Chard. I can't get this anywhere in the shops, and it's a lovely leaf, makes great soup as well as being good in stir fries. The stems are particularly edible.
  • Spinach. You have no idea how good it is to be able to go and get spinach fresh, off the plant, whenever we want it. And the variety we use self-seeds, just like a weed.
  • Plum and cherry trees. Very little maintenance once they're established, and we make tons of jam. Having fresh fruit in autumn is marvellous - I have a sticky face for weeks after the plums are ready! One tip if you have a large garden is to buy some early, some middle harvest, and some late varieties, to spread your harvest a little longer.
  • Artichokes, both jerusalem and globe artichokes. They grow readily, and are great vegetables not often available in the shops. The globe artichoke also looks gorgeous in the garden, with its spiky leaves. Jerusalem artichokes, with their little sunflower-like blossoms, are good for bees and other beneficial insects.
  • Lovage. I've given up growing celery - this lovely leaf is much easier to grow, tastes great, will keep going all summer, and produces seeds you can use in soups and curries for a tart celery-like taste as well as stems and leaves that you can use just like celery. The Romans used a lot of lovage in their recipes - and conquered most of the known world!
What don't I bother with? Cabbage, which is cheap in the shops. And I don't like it that much anyway. Peas, which always seem to get maggots and need lots of care, chemicals, nurturing and netting - altogether too much effort (though I might try a pest-resistant variety next year). Brussels sprouts. Every gardener I have ever known who grew these would spend two months of every year trying to give his surplus away to his friends (and the next ten months wondering why he didn't have any friends).

The other thing we have to do this spring is to visit our equine friends in the field next door. Two white (at the moment, mud-coloured) and one brown horse (okay, grey and bay for those of you who are in the know) produce large amounts of manure for us. We need a couple more wheelbarrows to add to our pile, now last year's manure is well rotted down and ready to use on the garden. This is something you need to plan - as good manure needs to have rotted for about a year before you let it anywhere near your fruit and veg.

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