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Rhubarb ‘Timperley Early’

Already revving up in February...

Is there anything you can’t do with rhubarb, I wonder?

I must have tried most things in my time. I’ve made cakes with it and stewed it for breakfast. I’ve pickled it into chutney and combined it with ginger in an exceptionally yummy marmalade. I’ve made crumble, of course, and adapted the same recipe with a sort of sponge mix and made rhubarb crumble biscuits just the right size for packed lunches. I’ve made icecream with it and whipped it into cream for a fool that makes you go weak at the knees.

I’ve also boiled the leaves up in water and diluted the cooled liquid before spraying them on my aphid-infested crops: I was doing it just for fun, you understand, and am absolutely not saying I was using it as a pesticide: it can’t be one, anyway, since it hasn’t been given a certificate by the stuffed shirts who populate those big buildings in Brussels. It was pure coincidence that all the aphids died shortly afterwards.

Of course I might have been doing it for the other beneficial side-effect of boiling rhubarb leaves: it leaves your pans spick and span and the cleanest you’ll ever have seen them. Something to do with the oxalic acid content, I believe, and a lot less work than Brillo pads.

And even after all that, I haven’t exhausted the possible uses for rhubarb. You can make a hair dye from it that bleaches mousey brown hair a honey blonde. You can make paper from the fibres in the stems. You can give a passing impression of a busily burbling crowd in amateur dramatics productions if you say it often enough. You can even sing about it.

Anyway. So I have the most useful plant in the world sitting right outside my back door. This should really have been pick of the month last month, as I have been picking its slender pink stems for weeks now. I mean, I know it’s been a mild winter, but March? for harvesting rhubarb?

...and by this month, it's at full throttle and has been for weeks

It’s also partly to do with the variety. ‘Timperley Early’ does what it says on the tin: it’s early. Very early. About as early as it’s possible to be without actually catching up with yourself behind, if you get my drift.

It’s one of the main forcing varieties, along with ‘Stockbridge Arrow’ which is a fine and rather regimentally upright growing type which I think I may also try to find room for one day (in case I run short of hair dye). You should actually always grow three rhubarb crowns, as they need a year to recover after forcing. So you have one crown you’re forcing, one which is recovering from last year’s forcing and the third one to pick at the usual time (which you’ll be forcing next January).

Mind you the idea of eating that much rhubarb brings me out in spots: these are the most amazingly generous plants. From my one measly two-year-old crown I can pick four or five stems every single day: and that’s easily enough to keep me plus rhubarb-loving family in breakfast fruit and crumbles with some to spare. The ‘Victoria’ crown I had at the allotment was twice as big and took up over half the 8ft x 4ft raised bed it was in: these are monster plants.

They don’t require much in return: just a nice rich soil (they are a bit greedy, so the richer, the better), a bit of sunshine (though they’ll put up with shade) and room to grow. You do need to divide them up into chunks (bit of root, bit of shoot) every four or five years: as soon as they start flowering, in fact, since that’s a sure sign they’re not happy and need a bit of rejuvenating. But that’s it. Not bad for year after year after year of providing very nearly everything you could possibly need.

I leave you with a final thought, for next time you’re wondering how to feed your rhubarb plant, with thanks to the rather wonderful Rhubarb Compendium:

“Your rhubarb, I’ve noticed it grows
By the outhouse where everyone goes!”
Grandad said, “Lad,
It isn’t so bad…
They’re family! Just people we knows!”

Floral gastronomy

You can eat all these...

I used to be a bit sceptical about all this new-fangled fashion for eating flowers. All a bit Guardianista, I thought. Looks nice and all that, but what about the flavour?

Well. Then I ate a rosemary flower. And found out about the flavour, and why people who eat flowers tend to eat rather a lot of them. I’m left with the feeling that for the last 20 years or so of my veg-growing life I’ve missed out on the best bit of my crop.

I now grow rocket not for the leaves but for the flowers: sweet, but with a peppery kick. Much nicer than the leaves, to be honest, so these days I don’t even bother with the salad course and go straight to the pretty bit. Radish flowers are pretty tasty, too (and followed by truly delicious green puffball seedpods).

And next time your brassicas bolt, try cutting the flower stems and eating them like a particularly colourful broccoli: this was all I got from the kailaan I grew last year, actually, since it was so ludicrously fast-growing it bypassed the broccoli stage altogether and just went to flowers.

...and these...

Anyway. So I had already jettisoned my old-lag scepticism before I spotted the Edible Flower Shop stand at the Edible Garden Show the other weekend and went to have a closer look. I  had no idea the world of edible flowers was quite so extensive.

The owner, Rachael, grows and eats an astonishing 54 different types of flower in her little Devon garden. Many of them were familiar; borage, nasturtiums, violas and chives. But there were a lot of surprises too; flowers I grow in my own garden but had no idea tasted good.

So here are some of the more unusual flowers you can eat: herbaceous borders everywhere beware…

Sweet Williams: Bedding plants are so unfashionable it’s hard to do the about-turn required to include them in something as 21st-century as edible flowers (actually eating flowers is a pre-Victorian practice but we’ll pretend we’re discovering it for the first time anyway. There’s got to be something the Victorians haven’t done first, surely?). But it turns out lots of bedding is edible. Now I see the point of it. All dianthus flowers - perennial as well as bedding ones – taste peppery.

...and these (though you might not want to)

Cowslips: I once walked through a valley in the Surrey Hills which was a carpet of cowslips from one end to the other. I could have sat down and eaten my lunch right there. All primroses and their relatives have sweet-tasting flowers, though you’ll have to get over an all-too-understandable sense of morality failure at picking them to eat in the first place.

Cornflowers: a sky blue (and sometimes deep purple) favourite of mine, usually found in the annual meadow I sow on my top terrace: but it turns out I’ve been missing a trick. The flavour is described as spicy, rather like cloves. Just imagine them mixed in with chive flowers…

Daisies: both common or garden lawn daisies and those retroussé little bedding daisies have that delicate nutty flavour that’s so hard to describe. You can eat the young leaves, too. I’d always been a bit sniffy about bedding daisies before, but now…

Runner bean flowers: Who knew. If you, like me, get a teensy bit fed up of eating runner beans with every meal towards the end of August, this might be a good way to moderate your crop. Just pick the flowers off before the beans form and scoff: they have a fresh, beany flavour and look sensational.

Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida): The name is a bit of a giveaway: this is actually a French marigold, though it’s used as a substitute for tarragon in hot, dry places (like Mexico, I presume). The flowers taste, rather startlingly, of aniseed. French marigolds are also edible, though they’re described as ‘citrussy’ which to be honest sounds a bit nicer, too.

By the way, if you want to grow these, and other edible flowers yourself: there’s a rather lovely Edible flower petals seed collection available from those lovely people at Crocus.

Edible inspiration

It was all change at the Edible Garden Show this year. There were turkeys, I tell you. Real ones, with those weird long things dangling off their noses. The pigs and goats were sadly missed – ‘elf ‘n’ safety, I’m told – but there were lots of chickens including a few obligingly being born in front of a rapt crowd of punters, and some ducklings cheeping rather adorably.

Oh yes, and it’s moved to London which is why the ridiculous ban on actual live, like, farm animals (except the ‘safe’ ones: presumably the HSE thinks it wouldn’t cause such a commotion among the locals if the turkeys got out and started rampaging around Alexandra Park).

I couldn’t help mourning the loss of the more sensible approach taken up in Stoneleigh, the show’s previous Warwickshire home at the National Agricultural Centre where they’re all so much down to earth about the dangers, or lack thereof, posed by goats and pigs.

But anyway: at least there were still plants. And lots and lots of good ideas for growing them: which is, after all, why the Edible Garden Show has become a pilgrimage for me every year, goats or no goats.

As usual I picked up some seriously interesting innovations as well as some oddities which may, or may not catch on: and I thought I’d share the best with you.

Woolly string: Those among you who do not keep sheep may not entirely appreciate just how difficult it is to find things to do with the copious amounts of unspun wool you end up with every May in shearing season.

So I was delighted to see that the folk at Twool have come up with the brilliant idea of spinning it into garden twine. You’re supporting rare breeds (the wool in question comes from white-faced Dartmoor sheep), it’s more environmentally friendly than imported jute and you can even bung it on the compost heap at the end of the season after it’s finished supporting your runners.

Woolly slug pellets: Not that I’m obsessed with uses for sheep by-products or anything, but dags are a wonderful thing if you’re a gardener. They’re the pooey bits you have to trim off your sheep’s bums to prevent them getting, well, bunged up (sorry). They not only feed the soil, being rather heavy on manure, but also keep slugs off since the woolly bits tend to stick to slime in a rather off-putting way (if you’re a slug. Or, come to think of it, even if you’re not a slug).

If you don’t have ready access to sheep, dags can be hard to come by – but there are now convenient, non-smelly pellets called Slug Gone which you can sprinkle around your plants. You don’t even have to dag a sheep first.

Hairy chives: I saw these when they’d just arrived last year and rather poo-poo’ed them (sorry, still got my mind on the dags) but now I’m not so sure. They look like an aberration: a bit like those slightly hysterical alliums which were popular a few years ago (A. vineale ‘Hair’ – no longer quite as available as they once were, and for good reason).

But the point here is that those wild green flower heads are actually miniature chives, as the petals quickly sprout little leaflets. I’m thinking this might work a little like leek flowerheads, which if you’re lucky sprout ‘grass’ which you can then propagate into new leeks. Though in this case, you’re supposed to snip off the flower heads to sprinkle on your salads and eat. I’d be tempted to try sinking one in some potting compost just to see what happened, though…

A no-watering summer: Now that’s my idea of fantasy gardening. And this could just make it happen. It’s an automatic waterer that only works when it’s sunny – possibly the definitive definition of common sense.

There’s rather a lot of gear: a little solar box, slightly smaller than your computer keyboard, plus a solar panel and a load of drippers or leaky hose. And you’ll need a water butt. But the genius idea is that when the sun’s out, that’s when your plants most need watering – so rely on the sun to power the pump that gets the water to your plants. No electricity, no watering cans, no fuss, no bother, and a lot of grateful plants.

Fruity juicing: I have an early apple tree, a ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’, which fruits in August. This is a very good thing: but the drawback of early apples is that you have to eat them all at once or they go to waste, as they don’t store. I’m all for my five a day, but my tree produces about 20 a day, per person, for about two months.

Which is why I’ve coveted a juicer for some time now. Vigo produces this handsome thing, a press which squeezes the liquid out of your apples for you to collect and bottle. Add a little ascorbic acid so it doesn’t turn brown, then pop it in the freezer and you’re set for the winter. It works for late season apples which aren’t quite good enough to store, too.

Potato trials 2014

I have spent my first hour outside in a t-shirt; there are seed trays in the greenhouse; I’m picking daffodils by the fistful for the vases in the house. And rhubarb, quite the earliest I’ve ever harvested my first stems: it is Timperley Early, but there’s early and then there’s really, really early. Not that I’m complaining.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is: it’s spring. And that means time to plant the potatoes.

Never one to shirk a way of making my veg-growing life as complicated as possible, as in previous years, I’m growing a range of different varieties just to see if I like any of the new ones.

But the much-celebrated Crocus Spud of the Year awards are taking a new turn in 2014 and finally acknowledging the fact that there is nowhere left in the country which is free of late blight. If there’s anyone out there whose spuds don’t suffer from this debilitating disease I’d like to know about it. There may be an award in the offing, though I’m not promising.

I live in the south-west, where dampness is a way of life. The water content of the soil is so high that you grow monster veg: but it rains a lot, and it’s warm, which is just how Phytophthora infestans likes it.

So this year, in a departure from the usual format, I’m trialling only potatoes which are said to be blight resistant.

You may have heard about the arrival of a genetically modified potato created by scientists at the John Innes Research Centre in Norwich. All well and good: but I really can’t understand why they went to all the trouble. You see there are plenty of varieties out there already, naturally bred over some years and perfectly able to beat off an average attack without any funny hi-tech DNA business.

Over the next few years I plan to track down and grow all of them, ending up with a kind of league table of blight resistant maincrops (I do it so you don’t have to, remember).

This is partly to avoid the heartbreak of 2012 when I harvested not a single tuber from the row of my all-time favourite maincrop, King Edward, and made the sad decision to give up growing them altogether.

But it’s also because blight resistant maincrops are now the only ones worth growing. There’s not much point in comparing flavours and textures of non blight resistant varieties if you’re not going to harvest anything. So we’re left with the ones with at least a degree of disease resistance: it’s a small but occasionally surprisingly good group.

Without further ado, then, here are the varieties I’m trialling this year:

Vales Emerald: A first early so naturally out of the ground before late blight hits, this is one I’ve wanted to try for a while: high yielding and a good flavour, so the reviews say, and on many people’s list of best new potato varieties.

Ratte: As regular readers will know I’m a sucker for a heritage variety, and when you hear of one the French go mad for you’ve got to try it. It’s Danish (hence the odd name) and everyone raves about its delicate, chestnut-like flavour. Another first early.

Maris Peer: I love Maris Piper maincrops for roasties and wish I could grow them, but they don’t make any headway in my blight-infested soil. So I’m hoping this closely-related but faster maturing second early might be almost as good.

Setanta: On to the maincrops, and this is an Irish-bred toughie, resistant to pretty much everything going including scab, slug damage and something called gangrene which I never want to encounter on my spuds in my life.

Sarpo Axona: Sharpies are the crème de la crème of blight resistance: I’ve been growing Sarpo Mira for the last couple of years and it’s been just about all that’s survived the blight. I decided to try an alternative Sharpie after reading that River Cottage chef Gelf Alderson considered this and Sarpo Shona (on my list for next year) better than the (unspecified) organic potatoes he was until then regularly using. A Sharpie recommended for its eating qualities: now that’s something I’ve got to try.

Lemony thickets

My view from the bedroom window every morning

I am a naughty gardener.

I have been gallivanting again, this time in spring when no self-respecting grower ever strays more than five feet from the garden gate. I abandoned a whole greenhouse full of just-emerged seedlings and a half-planted veg garden for a whole week. I know, I know. You can’t make me feel more guilty than I feel already.

But I’m not sorry: because otherwise I’d have missed this.

It was growing beneath my bedroom window in Sicily and is quite the most magnificent lemon tree I’ve ever seen. It was easily the largest; the size of a medium-sized apple tree here, and it was in full fruit.

Lemons and Sicily have a long, profitable and occasionally troubled history. They’ve been grown there for 1000 years, and nine out of ten Italian lemons are grown on the island. Rumour has it that the Cosa Nostra was formed after a quarrel about a lemon grove. Bet they didn’t put that in The Godfather.

Plus it was Sicilian lemon growers who invented possibly my favourite saying of all time: ‘When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade’.

They’re not farmed as much as oranges where I was, near Catania in the south-east of the island: that happens mostly on the volcanic lower slopes of Etna, near Messina in the north-east. But there’s a lemon tree in most people’s gardens. It’s my idea of a fantasy fruit tree: evergreen, and frothing with starry white blossom that fills the air with a sweet perfume in November and December, of all months. The fruits are of course that wonderful daffodil shade of cheerfulness from about January, when nothing else is stirring let alone producing so vibrant a splash of colour. They take a year to ripen, so you’re picking them as the next blossoms arrive.

Doesn't it make your mouth water just looking at them?

Lemons aren’t just for Sicily though. They’ll do that winter flowering and fruiting thing here, too.

You could have a go at growing a lemon in the ground if you live in an inner city microclimate, in London, say. Even I could have had a stab at it this winter, since temperatures haven’t once dipped below zero. It might have drowned, mind you.

But mostly, you’ll have to resign yourself to growing your lemons in a container and grit your teeth for a lot of heavy lifting, as lemon trees can’t stand anything below 5°C and you’ll need to bring it under cover in winter. This doesn’t necessarily mean indoors: in fact citrus tend to prefer staying as close to outdoors as possible – in a frost-free greenhouse, say.

Growing in a pot has a rather bonsai effect, so your lemon tree won’t reach much more than a couple of metres tall, but it likes spending the summer outdoors so sink it into the ground to the rim of the pot and no-one will know the difference. If you wait for the very sunny day that constitutes the British summer, then squint and crouch down a bit you might even be able to kid yourself it’s a bit Sicily-ish.

Don’t overwater in winter; keep feeding with those funny little upside-down citrus feed thingies you get in the garden centre; and never move them from indoors to outdoors, or vice versa, too suddenly or they’ll drop their leaves. A gradual transition, leaving them out a little longer each day over a period of two weeks or so, keeps them green and healthy.

Eventually, when your lemon tree grows big enough, a waft of sweet perfume will greet you as you open the greenhouse door one chilly November. It’s such a delicious scent you will start finding urgent winter tasks in the greenhouse just so you can breathe it in again.

A year later and you’re celebrating Shrove Tuesday with unusual dedication as the lemons you squeeze on your pancakes are miraculously home-grown and have only just been plucked from the tree. And you’ll never need to leave your garden in early spring again, as you’ll have brought a taste of Sicily right into your kitchen.

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