The end of winter is in sight but there’s still time to plant trees. Sue Bradley looks at putting in a sweet chestnut and gets her beans started
Sue Bradley reveals what to do in the garden this month, plus our new column from expats belonging to France’s Open Gardens scheme
Marrons glacés are a festive French favourite, but can be expensive to buy. If space isn’t an issue in the garden, a sweet chestnut could yield buckets of tasty nuts for candying at home, along with graceful catkins in early summer.
These long-lived deciduous trees suit a sunny spot, whether sheltered or exposed, and grow best in areas with a mild climate and free-draining loamy or sandy soil with a neutral or acid pH. Sweet chestnuts will grow higher than 12 metres – often 20 to 30 metres – and have an ultimate spread of wider than eight metres, although it is possible to find more compact cultivars, such as ‘Regal’, which produces fragrant blossom and clusters of nuts that fall to the ground when they are ripe, although it does need to be planted with another sweet chestnut tree for pollination.
Other smaller types include ‘Marron de Lyon’, which produces single large and sweet-tasting nuts rather than clusters and has the advantage of being self-fertile. The new French hybrid ‘Maraval’ has a particularly good flavour, while ‘Marigoule’ produces heavy yields from early to midautumn. Both Maraval and Marigoule are partially self-fertile.
Plant young sweet chestnut trees from late autumn to late winter – February is ideal as long as temperatures are not freezing. Begin by loosening the ground around the planting site and adding wellrotted compost or manure to the entire area if the quality of the soil is low. Dig a hole that’s as deep as the rootball of the tree, or the container it’s in, and three times as wide. Soak the roots in water, or moisten a potted plant well.
When planting, aim to keep the level of the soil the same as the nursery line on the tree, or in line with the top of the compost if it’s a potted specimen. Fill in the sides of the hole with soil, gently firming it around the roots to prevent air pockets. Water well for the first year.
Trees will produce sweet chestnuts inside spiky casings after two or three years, usually in and around mid-autumn, at which point it’s wise to start picking before the squirrels find them.
Eat sweet chestnuts roasted over an open fire, boiled, puréed or candied. They can be used in nut roasts and stuffings or milled to make a flour.
To make marrons glacés, place 500g of fresh, unpeeled chestnuts into boiling water for four minutes and then peel them while warm.
Create a syrup by bringing 300g caster sugar and 300ml water to the boil and then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the chestnuts and simmer for a further eight minutes, before turning off the heat and allowing them to stand overnight. Boil the chestnuts and syrup for a minute the following day and leave to cool. Repeat this process over subsequent days until the syrup has gone. Finally, place the chestnuts onto a baking tray covered with parchment and bake in a very low oven for around two hours.