GARDENING VEGETABLE TOP CROPS
Whatever the weather, gardens are meant to be spaces that you can use, are fun to live in and have a real purpose. Our garden enables us to be totally self-sufficient in pork, beef, lamb, eggs and most vegetables. The livestock are minimal maintenance breeds, notably Dexter cattle and Soay sheep, kept at low densities and all user-friendly, highly visible and enjoyable to watch from the garden. Apart from growing my own meat and veg, I love cooking in the garden. Since I have learnt that the gas versus charcoal debate for barbecues finds the taste virtually indistinguishable between the two, even possibly favouring gas, we have invested in a new, large gas barbecue (Weber Genesis S-333, £1,499.99, weberbbq.co.uk), which makes cooking outside much more feasible, and we do it more often. Tucked away (with trellis and hedging) in the vegetable garden, the new area of culinary excellence, with its stainless-steel spaceship, outdoor sinks and a big stone worktop, has become a honeypot. It is conveniently sited by the outdoor sofas and eating space and is frequently a hive of activity with many sous chefs eager to join in helping with gathering, preparing and cooking. Even the animals enjoy watching the activities. Partly due to the weather, the vegetables and fruit have been overwhelming this year. Fortunately, the animals not only love all the hedge and tree prunings (except yew and laurel) but they adore bolting brassicas, courgettes, apples and more. Since my delivery of 12 tons of green waste (from bettaland.co.uk) last autumn, my veg, fruit and ornamentals have burgeoned. I do need a new wheelbarrow, though – but I am far fitter. Even my (also heavily mulched) pleached Cox’s apples (not known for doing well in Britain) are superb. I planted my tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers and celeriac into neat green waste and they thrived. Even the usually delicate yellow courgettes thrived. I tried new varieties of these, ‘Goldmine’ F1 and ‘Partenon’ F1, which both came in thick and fast. I often toss in handfuls of chopped basil at the end, which lifts the delicate, almost creamy flavour. I was given a tray of wonderful tomato varieties by a keen gardener friend (and terrific chef). Claire’s (castorhousegardens. co.uk) clutch included ‘Rainbow Blend’ (a mix of four baby plum varieties in yellow, red, orange and pink), which crop ferociously and are extremely sweet and flavoursome, ‘Bloody Butcher’, another heirloom and a beefsteak – this came in first, very early, despite having largish fruit about 100 millimetres in diameter. Usually the mini ones ripen before the larger ones. Other great firsts for me were ‘Costoluto Fiorento’, a big, heavily ribbed, firm, bright-red beefsteak, and ‘Cuore di Bue’, which translates as ox heart from the Italian for obvious reasons – it is 5in in diameter and popular here. It is an Italian heirloom. Another, ‘Ciliegia’, is a sweet, bite-size cherry – excellent. As a trial, I planted one grow bag, complete with an automatic watering tray system, with three tomatoes (two ‘Rainbow Blend’ and ‘Ciliegia’), and these plants, despite never having lacked water, are the runts and very unhealthy compared with my hand-watered pots of the same varieties on the capillary matting in green waste. Never again will I use a grow bag. In the ornamental garden I pile the green waste on my thin soil and it (being totally weed-free) helps me control weeds, improves the soil structure and makes everything grow. I will put a 20-centimetre-thick duvet layer over young or tender plants (agapanthus, alstroemerias, cannas) this autumn to insulate them from extreme temperatures. Spreading compost is great autumn and winter work – satisfying, productive and, dare I say, enjoyable. Now, with the weather still warmish, I am propagating cuttings (tender sages, pelargoniums) and sowing veg (winter lettuce, fennel and coriander). I go big on winter lettuce – some will go outside, some under cloches and most in three-litre pots in the greenhouse; that way, with the help of my watercress (in pots standing in a wet tray in the greenhouse and in a wet bed outside), I should, as last year, be able to cut a green salad daily all through winter. I am growing Suttons’s Leaf Salad Winter Mix, Italian Mix, Spicy Oriental Mix plus rocket.
My plumbago ( Plumbago auriculata) has been the talk of the town, flowering non-stop for months with its exquisite pale-blue flowers, so I have recently taken more cuttings of these too. I spoke to Trevor Triggs of Cross Common Nursery (crosscommonnursery.co.uk); for his favourite plumbago (he stocks several) he says the deeper blue P. auriculata ‘Crystal Waters’ is exceptional. He reminded me to cut them back in early spring so they produce more young growth that will generate the heady mass of flowers. They will not stand temperatures below freezing, but no deadheading is necessary and generally they are very easy plants.
Cross Common Nursery also sells a great range of citrus. In London I saw a four-metre-high mature grapefruit tree dripping with yellow footballs; it had obviously breezed through recent cold winters, so I have planted four standards for my son, Fred, in his tiny London garden. Grapefruit, according to Stephen Read (readsnursery.co.uk), are usually grafted on a “farmer’s rootstock”, which is the generic term for the citrange rootstock, of which there are many forms. Stephen found that they would survive outside in temperatures of -6C (21F), but they struggled at -10C (14F). Keep the bark protected in cold weather, he said; otherwise, being evergreen, the trunk is full of moisture (unlike deciduous trees) and so is apt to freeze and split. Knowing this, I am pushing the boat out and have ordered one for myself in sunny Stamford too – with my new weather warning system I think I can pull it through.
A new trial I have been using in my garden since the end of May allows me to look back at summary graphs and records of temperature, rain, humidity and more from my own garden (or close by) and also gives me a six-day weather forecast together with alerts for fog, frost (or any temperature threshold) and rain. The system is called Netatmo (£139; netatmo. com) and is Apple based, with the information coming down to iPad, iPhone or computer from two bases, one inside and one outside. Having an alert when the temperature is plummeting will spur me on to tuck up tender treasures and make sure the thermostatic heater is in place in the greenhouse. Our climate is so bizarre that anything that helps me to be more aware must make me a better gardener.
Eating out: clockwise from main, Bunny’s veg garden; red chard Beta vulgaris; clever planting yields lettuce through winter; tomato and chilli mixes; Bunny’s barbecue area