It takes a bit of admitting but even fanatical gardeners can find they hit the doldrums in August. It’s my least favourite gardening month: all your spring optimism has been replaced by this year’s glaring failures: even the joy of picking beans starts to lose its sheen when you’re filling your 20th bag at the wrong end of yet another evening of topping and tailing. Plus it’s not quite time to plan for next year yet, so you tend to lose your sense of purpose.
But September is another matter. There’s a nip in the air and autumn on the wind: a sense of urgency creeps in as you harvest your maincrops and store them before winter. Empty veg patches need putting to bed, and you’re starting to mull over this winter’s big projects and how you’re going to fit in all the things you want to try next year.
One nice thing I did manage in August, however, was to sow my last batch of coriander seeds for the year.
I borrowed the title of this post from the all-women club at Spitalfields City Farm in London, set up in 2003 to provide Bangladeshi women in the area with the chance to grow veg from home. It turned into a hugely supportive, creative and productive hub of the local community which has transformed the lives of the women involved and is generally a shining beacon for how a little gardening can bring people together.
Key among Bangladeshi crops, of course, is the wonderful herb coriander: and the ladies at Spitalfields sure know how to grow it. Unlike me.
We use loads of coriander: I plant it among the salad leaves for a herby tang among the lettuce, and I also have long troughs of it on my herb shelves. But I find the stuff takes ages to get going and then immediately bolts. This isn’t such a bad thing with coriander, as at least you can use the seeds, so I haven’t minded too much. But in the interests of providing just a few handfuls of fragrant leaves for salads and cooking, I took the chance when I was at the Bangladeshi Allotment Garden at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show this year to pick up a few tips.
First among the golden rules of coriander growing, it turns out, is always to sow direct. Ah.
Until I spoke to the ladies at the Bangladeshi Allotment, I’d been sowing the seeds in modules in the greenhouse, thinking it would give them the warm start they needed, and then when they were big enough I transplanted them into my big long troughs. But they sulked and refused to get going, and much as I tried to blame it on the weather, or my erratic watering, or whatever excuse I could find at the time, there was no getting around it: this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Now I find that I was doing it wrong all along. Coriander hates being transplanted: if you’re going to grow it in troughs like me, you have to sow the seed straight into the compost where it’s to grow. Even if you look after them, coriander grown in little modules will never thrive.
My first batch of direct-sown coriander this year has been a revelation: admittedly, it got a bit of greenfly to begin with, but it shrugged that off and for the first time ever we’ve got handfuls of leaves and to spare.
Sowing my next crop gave me a little logistical problem, though, as I do like to harvest coriander seed (since mine bolted so quickly, this was the whole point of growing coriander for a while). But coriander seed takes ages to ripen, so if your troughs are full of older plants turning brown, how do you re-sow them direct?
Luckily, drying coriander plants are also very sparse around the feet. So I simply popped the next crop of coriander seeds in among the toes of the previous crop. And now I’ve got a healthy little sprouting of baby coriander poking their heads up among the stalks: once I’ve picked the seeds I’ll just snip away the stems at the base so the babies have room to stretch out.
And a second tip, which I haven’t yet tried but is top of my list to try next year: the Bangladeshi Allotment ladies say if you soak the seeds for 24 hours and then pre-germinate them in kitchen paper before sowing them straight onto the compost, they come up like mustard and cress. In Bangladesh this method of sowing is so successful they can grow coriander lawns. Now there’s a garden feature I’d like to see.