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Jerusalem artichoke

It may not look like it, but this is treasure

I’m cheating a little here as this particular Jerusalem artichoke isn’t in my garden – though it soon will be.

It’s growing, a little overenthusiastically, in one of the gardens I look after. So far it’s filled a whole corner of the sizeable veg patch and is doing a Great Escape style bid for freedom by tunnelling under the fence to pop up in the lawn on the other side.

Jerusalem artichokes are not for the faint-hearted. Or those of a delicate disposition. There can be few vegetables quite so irrepressible: they spread like weeds, and they’re eight feet tall so there’s no ignoring them. And they make you fart like a trooper.

So why, in the name of all that’s polite, would you ever consider growing them? Let alone – as I’m doing – swiping a few (with permission, of course) to plant in your own garden?

Because they’re one of the easiest, tastiest and most generous vegetables you’ll ever grow, that’s why. Jerusalem artichokes are that rare thing, a genuinely year-round crop you can harvest as much as you like, any day you like, from Christmas Day to the summer solstice and back again. And you never, ever have to re-sow it: once you have it, like dimples or an inability to stay calm in the face of apostrophe misuse, you have it for life.

The knobbly tubers stay underground like so much buried treasure (albeit rather muddy treasure) waiting amiably for you to come along and dig it up: no need to store, no need to worry about it turning woody or slug munched if you leave it in the ground too long. Forget to harvest and they just multiply some more. I don’t think there’s any other vegetable so easy to grow.

The only bit of maintenance you need to do: chop dead stems down to the ground in winter - though remember to mark where the treasure is buried!

You do need a bit of space, of course: these are giant plants, as you’d expect from close relatives of the sunflower. The stems hit a clear 8ft tall at full height, sturdy enough to act as a windbreak (Jerusalem artichokes make excellent shelter belts for windy allotments) and topped in late summer with cheery smallish sunflowers. Incidentally, the name Jerusalem has nothing to do with the capital of Israel: it’s actually a corruption of the word ‘girasole’, the French for sunflower.

Mind you, anything less like an artichoke of the globe kind is hard to imagine. Jerusalem artichokes are all lumpen Gabriel Oak to globe artichokes’ effortlessly elegant Bathsheba (Alan Bates, Julie Christie, 1967 – never bettered, if you ask me).

They’re muddy, knobbly, ugly – a bit like potatoes, though not so pretty. The variety ‘Fuseau’ is the one you’re most likely to find, described as ‘smooth skinned’ – though it’s all relative, I suppose. It looks just as knobbly as the rest to me. There are red-skinned varieties like ‘Gerard’, and a shorter variety – to about 4ft tall – called ‘Dwarf Sunray’, though I’ve never found it in the UK. In the US, where Jerusalem artichokes (known there as sunchokes) are far more widely grown than here, there are about 70 different varieties to choose from – about time a few of them made it across the pond, if you ask me.

Anyway, the artichoke connection probably comes mainly from their flavour – more than a little reminiscent of their infinitely more sophisticated relatives. And if you’re going for an artichoke flavour I’d far rather peel a Jerusalem artichoke tuber (tip: parboil first, then rub the skins off with your fingers) than fiddle about descaling a thistle.

The flavour is particularly good, too – in fact I’d say that along with the pretty sunflowers it’s the reason everyone should give a corner of the garden (and a little bit more, if they’re not careful) to Jerusalem artichokes.

Cook them into a soup with leeks, potatoes, onions and a good stock; roast them whole in hot fat, like roast potatoes, and mash them up (half and half with spuds works well). Or cut into pieces and fry them with bacon, then toss into a warm salad…. mmmm. Just make sure you’re in forgiving company when you serve them up, as the after-effects are for impolite society only.

Greenhouse no. 1: salad plug plants not so successful, pak choi more so. And the peppers are still going strong!

January is not the best month in the greenhouse. We’re at that stage of the year where everything’s gone into stasis, hunkered down, head low, waiting for the bad stuff to go ‘way until spring comes around again.

Unless, of course, you sowed lots and lots of salad in your greenhouse borders back in October or so. In that case, you have reason to be cheerful in the greenhouse: in fact it’s a haven of greenery in a world turned sepia brown and definitely twiggy.

My salad plugs have not worked well: I think I probably planted them a bit too late and they have Sulked. The chards aren’t looking too bad, but they’re refusing to grow: entire clumps have been devoured by slugs despite my best efforts with the pellets.

I have a large hole which appears as if by magic every so often in the soil at the side – it’s around mouse-sized – and I suspect this may be partly to blame for the failure of nearly every nearby clump of salad seedlings.

I can’t think the little whiskered ones are actually enjoying eating salad, so I think they’re probably having a nibble out of curiosity while basking in the unexpected warmth and dryness. I have taken to pouring half a watering-can’s worth of ice-cold water down the hole every time it appears, just so they don’t get too comfortable. They retreat for a while, but inevitably the hole appears again. Luckily this is not the seed-sowing greenhouse so trapping won’t (I hope) be necessary.

Pak choi, the picture of health, with a single solitary lettuce in the middle

But just look at my pak choi! These I sowed in around September, when you’re supposed to, and they were a lovely hefty seedling size by the time I uprooted the aubergines and planted them in the greenhouse borders. They’re now the picture of health, along with the single survivor of my ill-fated ‘Merveille de Quat’ Saisons’ sowing last autumn, and ready to pick. Yet more excuse to venture into the greenhouse at every possible opportunity.

In the other greenhouse all is subdued: shrouded in bubble-wrap, heater set to 5°C to keep the frost off. We’re in an unusually cold snap for Somerset; it is dipping down to -3°C at night, the lowest it’s been for over two years. I had to search for the greenhouse heater where it had settled under a load of other stuff in the shed and coax it back into life after its long spell of redundancy.

In here are the frost-tender plants: an eclectic mix of scented-leaf pelargoniums, a prickly pear cactus (I nurse optimistic hopes that one day I’ll get this to fruit outside – tried them in Italy once, and they’re hardier than you think), Musa basjoo (hardy banana) and a lovely but frost-tender pure white nerine – Nerine sarniensis ‘Blanchefleur’ – which I came by some years ago, I forget how, but has suddenly started flowering each autumn with a heartbreakingly beautiful white blossom. I know I’m supposed to be a fruit’n'veg girl all the way, but you’d have to have a heart of stone to chuck this one out.

Ensete ventricosa, various scented-leaf pelargoniums and the cactus sitting it out in the frost-free greenhouse

Sadly the Ensete ventricosa - purple banana – is looking a little grey around the edges and I wouldn’t rate its chances of seeing this March too highly. I’ve never yet managed to overwinter one successfully. This greenhouse is also home to my spectacular tree chilli (Capsicum pubescens) which I’m hoping will make it into a third year this year, though heaven knows what I’m going to do when the branches get even bigger – they’re already knocking the greenhouse roof.

I keep trying to wean myself off tender plants which need overwintering, but they’re such a special bunch and make my gardening life such fun I can’t really bring myself to stick to good old British toughies. Sometimes a little light indulgence – including the slightly guilty use of greenhouse heaters – is necessary, if only to put a smile on your face whenever you go outside.

Living on the edge

Sleepers edging beds on a large scale in the veg garden at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea

I have been thinking a lot about the edges of things lately.

As m’learned colleague James recently demonstrated, when a word is short it has a disproportionately large amount of meanings.

In this case…

Edgy, as in Nick Cage.

Cutting edge.

The Edge of Glory (the fact that I know a Lady Gaga song is one of the more unfortunate byproducts of living with not one but two teenage girls).

The Edge (as in the guitarist. My kids have heard of him too: an unfortunate byproduct of living with middle-aged mums).

Sharp edges: as in secateurs, except not mine at the moment as I have been doing too much rose pruning with them lately.

Edgways: rather like sideways, only shiftier.

Edging along unsuitably narrow bits of stone outside buildings, a talent often used in silent movies: Harold Lloyd seemed particularly fond of doing this.

Edging shears

‘Edge funds (OK, now I’m cheating)

Scaffold board edging in the zigzag vegetable garden

Edible edging: a particularly nice thing to do to your veg beds. Curly-leaved parsley does the trick admirably; rows of ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuces almost as well.

And, since we’re straying back into kitchen garden territory again, veg bed edging. This is because I’ve been asked to turn a higgledy-piggledy veg patch into something more aesthetically pleasing in one of the gardens I look after, and that involves introducing a lot of edges.

I do like potager-style gardens. I have one in my own garden – actually, the only bit of it that’s properly finished. It has triangular beds (my obsession with triangles is well documented but probably best glossed over here) and is a pleasingly symmetrical pattern, with a mellow stone wall at one end and a smart fence around the sides to enclose it plus a central focal point: all essential ingredients (bar the triangular beds, I suppose) for a formal vegetable garden.

In this case we’re dividing up the roughly square space into L-shaped beds around a central rectangular bed. There’s a nice deep-ish strip around the outside where there are already patches of Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb and mint which I don’t want to disturb unless I have to; and we’re planning a self-binding gravel path a little like the ones I use myself. Easy to lay, look good and you don’t end up walking annoying little stones into the kitchen every time you come indoors.

Which brings me to the edges. Holding the path in place – or defining the veg beds depending on your perspective – you have to have edging, and not all edges are created equal.

The fruit potager: board edging, but set low in the ground

You can use all sorts of things to edge a bed. Many years ago I lived in a smart city garden (remembered with fondness as the first garden where I planted a vegetable: it didn’t seem particularly portentous at the time, but that row of broad beans changed my life) where the teeny-tiny beds were edged with brick, set on edge in mortar and laid at a 45° angle to make a kind of hound’s tooth top. It looked very nice but was rather expensive and a bit… well… urban for what we have in mind here.

If you want an edge which doesn’t look like an edge, a metal strip edging melts back into the ground and simply defines the difference between cultivated bit and grass, or path, or whatever goes on the other side. But – again – expensive; and more useful in grass where you’re mowing over the edges. Here we want an edge which draws lines.

In my much-thumbed copy of Joy Larkcom’s ‘Creative Vegetable Garden’ there are edges of stones (rural but you do need stones all the same size, and they look hellish to weed); hoops of beech, hazel or willow (pretty and cottage-gardeny but I’ve tried this and though beautiful it lasts only a season before it starts to break and look tatty); and a very lovely edging of discarded clay roofing tiles nailed to wooden boards which I must try some time. Slate would work equally well.

But my fall-back position on the subject of edging is without doubt wood. True, it doesn’t last forever: but five years (the average lifespan for a board) isn’t a short time, either. It looks smart yet merges seamlessly with a wider landscape; you can make it follow nearly any shape bar a curve; you can get it in most thicknesses and lengths and even I, armed with nothing more than my rickety and rather rusty old battery-operated drill, some nails and a hammer, can build gardens which look rather lovely with it, all on my own, no specialist knowledge required.

Unfortunately, as often happens when you’re trying to design things in the garden, deciding on the material we’re going to use has only landed us with a whole lot of other decisions.

The garden’s owner wanted sleepers: but even after we’d navigated the perils of creosote seepage from reclaimed sleepers (answer: don’t risk it and buy new sleepers instead) and wobbled a bit over the logistics of cutting something 200mm thick, the cost has come in somewhere on the eyewatering side of extortionate. To be honest I’m quite glad, as I find beds made out of sleepers to be rather over-engineered: the wood muscles into your view and takes over in a bossy, obtrusive sort of way so you can’t seem to see anything else.

Scaffold boards are option no. 2: I use these in my own zigzag vegetable garden and they’re big, thick and sturdy. And you can saw them up with an ordinary saw. They’re getting increasingly expensive as scaffolding companies cotton on to demand – the going rate is £12 for a 13ft board – but still cheaper than most wood. They have the occasional mark or splash of paint, a few dents and cracks and metal bolted around the ends, but if you mind the allotment vibe you can always get the equivalent size in new wood: it’s more expensive but neater.

And finally, good old gravel boards. I find these too flimsy for raised beds, but if you think of them more as path edging and sink them into the ground so they’re just slightly above they make subtle but definite edges which are cheap, readily available, dead easy to cut to shape and look smart but unobtrusive. This is what I made my own potager garden from, and it’s still looking good nearly three years later.

We’re still in discussion. Who knew an edge could be so… well… edgy?

Remembering a time of plenty: sweetpeas and sweet rocket in my garden last June

So here it is, then. Hello, 2015!

Actually it feels much like 2014, if I’m honest. Now, I like an excuse for a party as much as the next person, but if like me you’re in prosaic and/or post-Prosecco-overindulgence mood this morning you’ve probably already figured out it doesn’t make much sense to see 1st January as some kind of new dawn, any more than 31st December, or 13th August, or any other date you care to mention.

After all, when the first New Year’s party was held in Mesopotamia some time in 2000 BC they picked a date in mid-March – the spring equinox – to get excited about. If you’re Chinese you won’t be getting at all excited until February 19th; and if you’re Jewish, you’ll be hanging on till September 13th for Rosh Hashanah.

I generally get all New Year-ish in autumn too, around September and October each year, as this is the time of year my new veg-growing year starts. It’s when the old year ends and I’m clearing away spent plants and tucking up the beds for winter; and it’s also when I get the following season off to a good start with sowings of ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ broad beans and lots of sweet peas in the cold frame, as well as autumn-sown onions and garlic outdoors. So the beginning of January feels like a continuation of the same, rather than the start of something new.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. After all, can you remember the ones you made last year? No. Thought not. Try making some this year and that’ll jog your memory: they will, after all, be exactly the same. As an exercise in finding an excuse to punish yourself for no good reason, it’s hard to beat.

I prefer, instead, to collect together the new experiences and lessons learned by the end of last year, last September, which have since been floating around aimlessly in my mind not doing very much.

It’s good to give it all a little time to coalesce into nuggets of information you can do something with – otherwise I find something which seemed terribly urgent and important last year turns out to be much less momentous than you thought it was. And some things – like how to avoid the aubergine disaster of last year in which perfectly healthy, flowering plants failed to make any fruit – can turn into quite different things, like the decision not to bother trying to grow aubergines any more since they’re too much blimmin’ trouble for what you get back. We don’t even eat that many aubergines anyway.

So here are my not-New-Year decisions, rather than resolutions, with which I hope – as always – to make 2015 an even better growing year than 2014. I’m on safe ground, as the longer I grow, the better it gets: but also shaky ground as veg growing has a habit of throwing you googlies which make you rethink everything you thought you knew all over again.

Happy Not New Year!

Photographing my garden once a month turned out to be really useful, at least until I got distracted and forgot to do it from about July (I’m aiming for the full twelve months this year). There’s nothing quite like photographic evidence that you really have made a lot of progress over the last six months to keep you going through the next six.

Dwarf beans may not be worth growing. I tried dwarf borlotti beans and French beans last year: those that weren’t got by the slugs were mud-splashed and none were plentiful. If anyone has any tips for growing them well, do let me know.

I am revamping the greenhouse as I have got into an unthinking rut in recent years which has dictated that I grow peppers, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, tomatoes and one novelty crop (insert name here) each year. Despite the fact that I eat hardly any aubergines, three cucumber plants is way too much, eight tomato plants is way too few and we don’t need any more chillies now the tree chilli is topping six feet and threatening to lift the roof off my greenhouse. Next year: no aubergines, two cucumbers max, blight-resistant trial for tomatoes to see if I dare grow them outside and I really, really want an edible passionfruit.

I need more potatoes. And carrots, and onions. I am aiming for self-sufficiency and these are the three which have defeated me: we eat tons and tons of potatoes, fight the ponies and guineapigs for carrots and always run out of onions by February. Luckily I can co-opt more land if I evict the chickens from their run and into a different bit of the top field for half the year. Everyone can find more growing space if they’re determined enough: if you think you can’t, just log on to www.landshare.net and have a good browse, or ask that neighbour with the brambly patch at the bottom of the garden if they want it growing veggies instead.

I will learn to garden in the dark. Time management is always a struggle for me what with kids and work and an inordinate and expanding number of animals to look after. But leaving the garden to its own devices is not an option: so I have decided to free myself from the constraints of daylight and garden with a head torch instead. Or in the shed: I am building myself a potting bench and there’s a proper light, and a radio, and a cup of tea in the shed. All good temptations to get me outside into the wee small hours of the morning if need be.

Happy Christmas!

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