GAR­DEN­ING VEG­ETABLE TOP CROPS

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

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.

FAVOURITE BUYS

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

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