In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Tom Cow­ard

Tom Cow­ard sows the seeds

EV­ERY patch of soil in our kitchen gar­den at Gravetye must be used pro­duc­tively so we can sup­ply our à la carte menu and pro­duce the best flavours pos­si­ble. An im­por­tant part of this is se­lec­tion of the best va­ri­eties, cho­sen in con­sul­ta­tion with Chef Ge­orge. Ev­ery day, he comes to the gar­den to see the crops and give his feed­back.

Each win­ter, we meet to re­view the pre­vi­ous sea­son and plan the next one, be­fore we place our seed or­der. This year, we will grow more than 150 dif­fer­ent veg­etable va­ri­eties from seed, each be­ing care­fully se­lected for the best flavour.

We al­ways have our tried-andtested va­ri­eties that we know will per­form and noth­ing is more re­li­able than the hum­ble radish. We sow them as early as March, un­der a cloche and, be­cause the radish is such a fast crop (ready at less than four weeks in peak sea­son), it can be used as a ‘catch crop’, sown into tem­po­rar­ily va­cant ground.

We’ve tried many, but Apache re­mains the best, with a unique sweet­ness to bal­ance its spici­ness. This year, we’re go­ing to try a new black-skinned one, Black Span­ish Round.

Also fast-ma­tur­ing are the turnips, which can be pro­duced through most of the sea­son with suc­ces­sional sow­ings. We har­vest them when they’re still small —about the size of a £2 coin— but, prior to that, the mar­ble­sized thin­nings are es­pe­cially prized by Ge­orge. Th­ese have the sweet­est flavour and are beau­ti­ful on the plate, served whole with the leaves on. Tokyo Cross is one of the best-flavoured turnips for this treat­ment, hav­ing good, clean white flesh.

Car­rots are tra­di­tion­ally a sta­ple of most kitchen gar­dens and we tend to har­vest ours as ‘ba­bies’. We’ve tried many va­ri­eties over the years, but, through trial and er­ror, have found just three to be the most suc­cess­ful: Am­s­ter­dam Forc­ing, Rain­bow Mix and Purple Haze, the lat­ter be­ing un­doubt­edly the best purple avail­able.

Through us­ing cloches and a poly-tun­nel, we can pro­duce our baby car­rots nearly all year round in the same way that we do bulb fen­nel, which is a favourite of mine. For both, we sow them into plugs and start them off in the cold frame, to be later planted out in the gar­den or poly-tun­nel, de­pend­ing on the sea­son. Au­tumn fen­nel plant­ings can be har­vested from the tun­nel through­out the win­ter, giv­ing us a steady sup­ply; Zeta Fino is ex­cel­lent both for early and late sow­ings, hav­ing tol­er­ance of the cold. Rondo is the tasti­est, but only good through the sum­mer, grown as a main crop.

Start­ing veg­eta­bles off in plugs can be a re­ally good way of giv­ing the plants a head start and con­trol­ling the qual­ity of the crop. This works es­pe­cially well for pro­duc­ing baby leeks. Th­ese can be sown a pinch in each cell, then planted out and har­vested in bunches.

Zer­matt is the va­ri­ety to use for this, al­though it does seem to re­sent the cold, so, re­cently, we have been us­ing North­ern Lights for win­ter leek crops.

As well as our tried-and-tested va­ri­eties, it’s im­por­tant to al­low space to ex­per­i­ment with new things. Last year, our great dis­cov­ery was the New Zealand yam or oca. It’s avail­able from Mar­shalls as tu­bers and is planted in the spring, then lifted through­out the win­ter. It has a re­ally un­usual, lemony flavour, which pairs beau­ti­fully with fish and white meats.

Not all of our ex­per­i­ments are suc­cesses and, for ev­ery dis­cov­ery, we have to spend time on a few dis­ap­point­ments. Ya­con, a close rel­a­tive of the dahlia, was one that I had high hopes for. It’s hand­some, with lush, heartshaped leaves reach­ing above one’s head and re­ally quite easy to grow. The tu­ber is the bit to be eaten and used in a sim­i­lar way to a wa­ter ch­est­nut. How­ever, it had a rather bland flavour and has been dropped.

This sea­son, I’m es­pe­cially ex­cited about a trial in the glasshouse with mini cu­cum­bers. They’re sup­pos­edly far sweeter than the larger, more com­mon va­ri­eties and Chef is very in­ter­ested in us­ing them in his gar­den salad. Highly rec­om­mended are Green Fin­gers F1 and Mini Munch. It’s al­ways good to try new things, even if they don’t work and, if you get just one ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery, the ef­fort is all worth it.

Seeds are avail­able from www. dt­brownseeds.co.uk, www.do­bies. co.uk, www.kingsseeds.com, www.mar­shalls-seeds.co.uk and www.sut­tons.co.uk

‘If you get just one ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery, the ef­fort is all worth it’

Tom Cow­ard is head gar­dener at Gravetye Manor, West Hoathly, West Sus­sex (www. gravetye­manor.co.uk) Next week: New plants to try

Along with your favourite va­ri­eties, why not try some new ones this year to add taste and colour to your plate?

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