Sea kale reaps all kinds of re­wards

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Tom Coward

THERE are many veg­eta­bles that are beau­ti­ful plants in their own right and sea kale, Crambe mar­itima, is one of the most charm­ing ex­am­ples of these. It’s na­tive to our coasts, grow­ing wild just above the tide line on shin­gle beaches. The crinkly leaves emerge pur­ple, but quickly de­velop a glau­cous waxy coat­ing, which pro­tects the plant from the ex­treme con­di­tions in which it lives. Its dense bou­quets of white cru­cif­er­ous flow­ers are also lovely when they open in May, pro­duc­ing a heav­enly honey scent.

In the flower gar­den, this plant can work well at the front of a bor­der, as it has good fo­liage and fluffy white blooms and, in the spring, we plan to plant some in the gravel along the long bor­der to see how ef­fec­tive they are. How­ever, it’s in the kitchen gar­den where we’re es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in grow­ing sea kale as its young shoots can be con­sid­ered one finest del­i­ca­cies of the spring.

It’s quite a dif­fi­cult in­gre­di­ent to find and rather ex­pen­sive, so it more than jus­ti­fies its space in the gar­den. The flavour could be com­pared to salty globe ar­ti­choke, with a beau­ti­ful aque­ous crunchy tex­ture. This makes it con­test well with creamy sauces and it will com­ple­ment del­i­cate fish, such as Dover sole, per­fectly. Per­son­ally, I like sea kale best just steamed, on its own, and plas­tered in but­ter.

The tough leath­ery leaves are re­ally quite bit­ter and not nice to eat un­less blanched, but when this is done, by re­mov­ing all sun­light as the plant comes into growth, the beau­ti­ful new creamy­coloured shoots can pro­duce ex­cel­lent crops. I’ve heard sto­ries of how, in the old days, the Kent fish­er­men used to pile sand over plants to force them. I’m told it could give quite gritty re­sults, like badly dressed crab, and, these days, our na­tive flora is best left un­mo­lested.

Over the past few years, we’ve had worth­while yields by grow­ing some plants un­der ter­ra­cotta rhubarb forcers and, be­cause Chef has been so pleased with what we’ve brought him for the kitchen, we’ve de­cided to in­crease pro­duc­tion.

Be­cause sea kale is a peren­nial crop, spe­cial at­ten­tion needs to be paid to the soil be­fore plant­ing it, so this win­ter, we’ll pre­pare our new ‘seakale bed’ by trenchdig­ging grit, com­post and sea­weed fer­tiliser into the soil. Be­ing a mar­itime plant, it will thrive in sim­i­lar con­di­tions to a good as­para­gus bed. If this work is done in good time, while the weather is dry, the soil should have set­tled nicely for a spring plant­ing.

It’s an easy plant to prop­a­gate from root cut­tings taken in au­tumn. These are best rooted in trays in the cold frame and, by spring, the baby plants should be ready to plant out, but buy­ing in rooted ‘thongs’ from sup­pli­ers such as Sut­tons or Mar­shalls can be an eas­ier way of start­ing a crop. These should ar­rive in the post ready for plant­ing, al­though I usu­ally pre­fer to pot them up and push them on un­der glass first. This will give the plants a good head start and the best pos­si­ble chance of suc­cess af­ter they’re planted out in their bed.

A good mulch is help­ful to keep the weeds down and the soil moist. Sea­weed is the best stuff to use if you can get hold of it, but we’re go­ing to have to use a fine com­posted bark.

We don’t have enough ter­ra­cotta pots to force all of the sea kale from our new bed ef­fi­ciently, so we plan to use black plas­tic laid over cloche hoops for the rest of the crop. It’s a tech­nique we’ve also used quite ef­fec­tively to force white as­para­gus in the past, to pro­duce a del­i­cate al­ter­na­tive to our pre­ferred green spears. Bear in mind that both of these crops take quite a lot of work to be­come es­tab­lished and they can tie up the ground for some time.

How­ever, when the gar­den can pro­duce some­thing truly spe­cial, it’s more than worth the ef­fort. It will take a year to es­tab­lish be­fore our new plants can be forced and two years un­til they’re giv­ing good yields. To en­joy the best re­sults from a gar­den, a lit­tle pa­tience is al­ways re­quired and this is es­pe­cially true when pro­duc­ing fine food.

‘The flavour can be com­pared to salty globe ar­ti­choke

Tom Coward is head gar­dener at Gravetye Manor, West Sus­sex (www.gravetye­manor.co.uk)

Cape Town’s Kirsten­bosch gar­den

Beau­ti­ful in its own right and tasty, too: Crambe mar­itima grows on beaches, but re­mains a favourite in the kitchen gar­den

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