I love this time in my garden. It’s full of the scent of lilacs and apple blossom, butterflies and bees doing their aerial dances, a symphony of birdsong and, in my little vegetable plot, bright green shoots that promise delicious fresh things to eat. If I can keep the slugs, snails, blackfly, caterpillars, pigeons, squirrels, and cats-in-search-of-a-giant-litter-box off them, that is.
This might sound like the smuggest post I’ve ever written, but I really don’t grow anything that’s very difficult. Two easy things I always grow are tomatoes and broad beans, mostly because I can start them very early in the year when I’m itching to grow something, anything. I’ve described my granddaughter’s unique and surprisingly successful take on sowing tomato seeds in an earlier post. I tried to limit the number of seeds she got her hands on this year, the result of which is that I only have twice as many plants as I need, rather than three times. These are cherry tomatoes, so they won’t produce very heavy fruit that might drag the plants over, and I can pop them into my mouth like sweeties. They’ll be grown in pots so I can space them out well and try to avoid the blight which has raced through the whole crop whenever I’ve grown them in the ground.
I grow as much as I can from seed and they all go through the same cycle: germinated on the bedroom windowsill; then moved to the unheated but next to the house conservatory; then to the studio at the end of the garden where they can be shifted in and out easily for hardening off; then planted out when it’s safe to do so without frost. I germinated the broad beans inside on my bedroom windowsill in February, and they were hardened off and planted out fairly promptly as they’re tougher than they look. So they’ve made good growth, enough for the usual Heath Robinson-style string support system to be deployed. I brace myself (and my soapy water spray) for the blackfly onslaught.
The tomatoes and broad beans are no-brainers, but after that veg have to earn their space as there really isn’t that much of it. Sweetcorn are something you wouldn’t necessarily think of for a small plot; they need generous spacing and only produce a couple of cobs per plant. Plus they’re tender so can’t be planted out till there’s no risk of frost. But they can be inter-planted to utilise the space. They’re fairly shallow-rooted, which means they need staking, but are ideal for a plot like mine where the earth under the raised beds is full of gravel. And, oh the taste of a fresh cob, picked and put straight into boiling water, doused with butter… The sugars in any vegetable will start to turn to starch as soon as they’re picked, but in no other vegetable does it make as much difference as a corn cob. Fresh corn is more of a treat in my opinion than asparagus. There, I’ve said it.
Another veg that takes up a lot of space is the globe artichoke. But they’re beautiful architectural plants, decorative enough that I can sneak them into flower beds. They’re also perennials, so they won’t take up precious space on the germination windowsill next year. And, to speak plainly, I got the seeds in the end-of-season sale last year for 50p. So I’m pretty pleased about the five plants I’ve got growing, and excited to watch them develop.
I wouldn’t grow ordinary peas, despite them being a veg plot staple. I don’t think the yield is that brilliant, and frozen peas beat even very fresh peas into a cocked hat as a cooked veg (though the joy of eating them straight off the plant is a different matter). So I’m growing mange-tout, which don’t need podding, are great in salads and as crudites, and just as good in stir-fries or steamed. Plus I can nick the occasional pea shoot to add to a salad.
Talking of salad, there’s a cross-hatch of lettuce plants currently marking out the squares where the sweetcorn will eventually go, once the risk of frost is over. These are cut-and-come-again lettuces of various types and they grow extremely fast, given plenty of water and not too much sun. So I’ll soon be able to pick one or two leaves from each plant for the first garden salad, along with a few pea shoots and some fresh marjoram. I also have spring onions growing, and fast-growing red mustard and radishes sown directly but not yet germinated, all destined for either the salad bowl or the noodle bowl. In theory you’re supposed to sow a little lettuce regularly but in practice I find I don’t need a second sowing till it’s too late for the seeds to germinate, so oriental greens are a better late summer replacement.
If I could only grow one thing it would be herbs. Being able to pop out into the garden and snip a bit of this and a bit of that makes you feel like Nigel Slater, even when you’re just making an omelette. There are lots of perennial and shrubby herbs dotted around the garden: rosemary, bay, marjoram, lemon verbena, mint, thyme (in a hanging basket). I’m adding parsley, dill and coriander, all grown from seed. I know you can separate and plant up supermarket pots of seedlings, but in my experience they’re never robust enough to plant outdoors, however much you harden them off. Last year the parsley went a bit mad and I’ve probably made the same mistake this year with too many seedlings. But you can never have too much parsley, right?
So those are my green shoots so far this year. Still on the bedroom windowsill starting block are courgettes, dwarf French beans and runner beans. And then there’s the fruit. But that’ll have to wait for another post.