Grow What You Eat – tales from the vegetable plot

Furry Scarecrow

My vegetable growing career began in Leipzig, Eastern Germany. Man and I lived in a converted leather factory, whose apartments had balconies suspended over the Elstermühlgraben –  an old mill stream. We lived and barbecued on this 1 metre by 5 metre space from late April to early October. To protect our privacy from neighbours intrigued by our foreign cooking smells, I decided to grow window boxes full of climbing vegetables. Now back in urban London, I grow vegetables on a sunny south facing terrace,  utilising a combination of wooden troughs, long window boxes and a variety of pots.

Fiona, on the other hand, has had at least two proper gardens. One in the Welsh Borders, full of raspberries, lettuces, and beans neatly in rows, with chickens grubbing around and probably the odd Peter Rabbit nibbling away. The other was on a French hillside with gnarled and garrulous farming neighbours clucking over the fence at her very English attempts to grow vegetables in their native soil.

We’ve both learned how to garden in different ways but love eating what we grow. We also agree though that, however, older or more experienced we are, we still feel we have a great deal to learn. Therefore, we have put together a Q&A session to share what knowledge we have of how to grow what you eat.

GIVEN A SMALL BUT COMPLETELY EMPTY GARDEN, WHAT ARE THE FIRST THREE THINGS YOU WOULD DO TO START YOUR VEGETABLE PLOT?

 FJM: First, I would be very patient and spend time getting rid of all the couch grass and bindweed that inevitably plague all gardens and are a real nightmare if you intend to grow vegetables. To do this you have to cover the area you want to plant with either thick black polythene or old bits of carpet and leave it for a whole year. This gives you a reasonable chance of getting rid of most of the pernicious roots of these horrible weeds. The second thing I would do would be to plant the entire patch with potatoes. They’re a great plant for enriching the soil with nitrogen and aerating it with their roots. Then in the winter of the second year, the third thing would be planning on paper what to grow, when, and where.

Patience is a virtue I have never managed to acquire.” – Judi

JS: Learning from my mistakes, I would first decide which vegetables/fruits you enjoy eating, secondly work out which produce you could grow a surplus of that would store well to be used throughout the winter months, and thirdly I would do some research as to how many plants of each variety you need to plant to feed the number of people you are catering for.

WOULD YOU GROW FROM SEED OR BUY PLUG PLANTS?

 FJM: I always preferred seeds as the plants rooted better – and they were so much cheaper. But in Wales, I did have a greenhouse which helped to start the early vegetables, so if you haven’t got the space, then ready-planted veggies are the answer. Here in France, it was just so easy to put seeds in the ground and wait for them to grow – but the hot sunny weather also meant frequent watering, and in some cases, sheltering the plants from the sun. So pluses and minuses both sides of the Channel.

JS: At first I only bought plug plants, which meant I was mainly growing tomatoes and a few herbs. But as described in the children’s story ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’, I found that bean seeds are incredibly easy to grow. They do indeed grow like ‘Triffids’, germinating within a day or two of planting in moist, temperate compost and can shoot up as much as an inch or two a day. Very satisfying for grandchildren. Now I am very grown up and use a windowsill propagator which is put into service in February. In this, you can start off the majority of seeds and then either repot the seedlings or plant them outside when the third leaves appear. By the end of June, it’s warm enough to sow seeds directly outside.

Baby Yellow Courgettes

WHAT PIECE OF GARDEN EQUIPMENT WOULD YOU NEVER BE WITHOUT?

FJM: A ‘panga’. My mother always used one, having seen it used out in Kenya by the Kikuyu gardener who looked after our garden. It’s essentially a machete and looks rather vicious, but is an incredibly versatile garden tool which you can use for weeding, hacking, hoeing, and cutting.

JS: A pair of secateurs. I find nothing more de-stressing than wandering outside my kitchen door and having a quick prune of anything yellowing or in need of dead heading.

DO YOU HAVE A GARDENING HERO?

 FJM: My mother. When we finally settled in the UK after a childhood spent in Africa and New Zealand, she became a brilliant self-taught gardener and managed a large vegetable plot that kept us in vegetables and fruit for much of the summer months. We had no freezer to begin with, so she also used old-fashioned methods of bottling and pickling. Out here in France, bottling, pickling, and tinning are still used a huge amount, and supermarkets have entire sections devoted to selling preserving equipment.

 JS: It has to be Monty Don. He’s completely self-taught, a very informal gardener and talks in a language that I can understand.

CAN YOU NAME ONE BASIC MISTAKE YOU HAVE MADE AND HOW YOU RECTIFIED IT?

FJM: Planting too much at once. And the mistake compounds itself if you have twenty lettuces ready to pick or all the broad beans coming through at once, resulting in plants ‘bolting’ and vegetables going to waste. I’ve never been too keen on freezing the excess as the whole point and pleasure is to eat what you’ve planted fresh from the garden. So I learned to plant small amounts but at frequent intervals to ensure a steady supply.

JS: Composting. I made a few mistakes here.  All our fruit and vegetable food waste is collected in a small kitchen container, this included coffee grinds, and to start with tea bags and egg shells. After a year’s worth of fermentation, I ended up having to pick out all the tea bags and trying to crush the egg shells into small bits as they take a great deal longer to break down. Also, when disposing of tomato plants in October I used to put all of the plant into the garden compost, not realising that even the tiny green fruit left would spill their seeds. This year’s compost is therefore full of little tomato plants raring to go and having to be picked out.

WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU GROW AND WHY?

FJM: Tomatoes – but only in France. Growing tomatoes in Wales inevitably ended in making green tomato chutney. Here, I discovered the pleasure of really sun-ripened tomatoes and there is simply no comparison. Perfect for a thick sauce with chilli flakes and balsamic vinegar which I freeze to remind me of the summer in the middle of winter.

Potatoes – but only either ‘earlies’ or a late unusual variety like Pink Fir Apple. There is nothing better than a bowl of baby new potatoes fresh from the garden, tossed in butter.

Cavolo Nero –  because it’s so difficult to track down here, and it’s a vegetable I adore the taste of. Plus the chards, ruby-red and white, as I love the slightly bitter taste of the leaves – good in tortillas or simply as an accompanying vegetable.

Broad beans – I have lovely memories of my young sons standing in the middle of the bean plants, podding them and eating them raw Peter-Rabbit style. And we would bring back a whole Serrano ham from our holidays in Spain to make ‘habas con hamon’ with the larger beans.

JS: My grandsons would never forgive me if I didn’t grow tomatoes. I supply them each with a plant of their own every year. This year it’s a Piccolo variety, a small cherry tomato, as well as the more well-known Gardener’s Delight and a new one for me, Super Roma. The latter two have medium sized fruit and with their surplus I make a roasted tomato sauce, which goes into the freezer poured into zip lock bags. I usually have enough sauce or passata for a year’s supply.

Runner beans still provide me with a perfect screen against my neighbours, but they also look good sharing wigwam stakes with sweet peas in a larger garden. I love their bright scarlet flowers against the mid-green leaves.  Since we inherited a 1940s mechanical bean slicer from my Dutch in-laws, I am in seventh heaven. Thinly sliced, 8-9 inch runner beans, simmered for no longer than 3 mins and tossed in salted butter are a regular side for summer meals. If you have a surplus, beans can be blanched, dipped immediately into iced water and then bagged and put in the freezer. Frozen beans are a bit limp when defrosted, so they are better included in a stir fry or added to winter stews

Third would be courgettes. Courgettes, picked from your garden when small and narrow with glossy skins, taste entirely differently to their larger supermarket cousins. In a container garden, they can be problematical as their leaves spread everywhere, smothering anything else. This year I am trialling a climbing variety – Black Forest. I’ll let you know if I manage to get it to clamber up the railing.

Fourth, would be Come and Cut again salad leaves.  Rocket also comes into this category, so I mix that in as well. I have also had great success with Chicoree frisee de Ruffec seeds acquired in France, by gradually cutting away leaves from the centre of the lettuce. New growth can be seen after a few days.

Lastly herbs; everybody can grow herbs, even on Juliet balconies and windowsills. I love pesto, so classic basil has to be a must. Pesto also freezes very well (recipe below). Next would be coriander because I use it to smother the top of all my soups, curries, and even add to salads for some extra spice. Last would be mint, as I love fresh mint tea. But downstairs on the patio outside the kitchen, I also have well established bushes of rosemary, sage and bay leaves.

Classic Pesto Sauce, Preparation Time approximately 30 mins.
This is a ratio guide. Pick your basil first, weigh it and then just double the amounts up. If you run out of basil, use other herbs to make the weight up, such as coriander, mint, parsley etc

50 grams basil
30 grams pine nuts
30 grams Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 clove garlic
85 ml good quality olive oil
Freshly ground salt and pepper to taste

Method

Heat a small frying pan over a low heat. Add the pine nuts and cook until golden brown, shaking or stirring all the time, so they don’t burn. Leave to cool for at least 5 minutes.

Put all the ingredients except the oil into a blender/ food processor etc. I have used a coffee grinder but you have to whizz very small quantities at any one time. Whizz it together and whilst the motor is still running pour in the oil slowly until the pesto thickens.

If you are storing the sauce in the fridge, put it in a clean container and cover with a slick of oil to prevent it from drying out. If I am making some for the freezer I store it in zip lock bags and then squeeze out however much I want, when needed.

Linguine with Pesto, Prawns, and Cherry Tomatoes
Linguine with Pesto, Prawns, and Cherry Tomatoes

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