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Veg gardening the traditional way

Well I thought I was doing pretty well on the exotics front this year, what with the tomatilloes hogging one end of the greenhouse and my huge tree chilli – now, in its second year, almost at roof height – fighting it out with the tomatoes at the other.

The loquat tree is thriving, the fig less so after I strimmed its head off a few weeks ago.

The yacon rotted in last winter’s wet so I’ll have to buy some more next spring (should have brought it in under cover, I know) but I’ve made up for it by acquiring a Japanese wineberry.

But the pros at Hampton Court, as always, make me feel like a stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist.

There were veg in that Growing Tastes marquee I never even knew existed, let alone thought of growing.

Here are the ones which are going in my little black book:

Harvesting cranberries the New England way

Cranberries: These were everywhere this year, thanks to a show feature by Ocean Spray all about the great tradition that is the American cranberry harvest.

I’ve heard about this before. Every autumn in New England they flood the wet marshlands where the cranberries grow, then stir up the water so the ripe berries are loosened and float on the surface in great wide ruby-red mats, ready for collection.

Kind of difficult, of course, to replicate in your back garden. But the bit about wet marshlands does offer a clue as to how to grow these tart little berries.

You’ll need an acid soil – we’re talking 5.0 or lower – or a pot of ericaceous compost; line planting hole or pot with an old compost bag to create those swampy conditions. You don’t want to create standing water (that’s a pond), just soupy soil, so punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Then water like mad, with rainwater whenever possible.

Get the conditions right and it all becomes a lot easier: they’ll survive the frostiest winters and will crop heavily for 10 years or more. Oh yes, and you can pick the berries in the normal way: no flooding required.

Cardamom (the black kind) - the perfect houseplant

Cardamom: I have to admit to being a bit hazy as to the origins of those curious, crispy little pods I occasionally pound in my pestle and mortar when making posh curry. Something vaguely exotic; tropical jungles, perhaps, and south Asia.

Well: I know a lot more now. There are two types of cardamom, it seems, both distantly related to ginger.

The green one, Elettaria cardamomum, has the stronger, more familiar flavour if you’re using your cardamom in sweeter dishes. Black cardamom, Amomum subulatum, has a smokier, more subtle taste: some say not as nice, but apparently that’s because they’re not using it right. It’s used in meatier, heavier dishes, always savoury.

You can grow both as houseplants. Not the most exciting of windowsill inhabitants, perhaps, since they’re unlikely to flower and produce pods in the UK, but they are evergreen at least.

And if you grow the green type you can use the leaves instead of the pods anyway, so you still get to boast about your home-grown cardamom.

Malabar spinach (the red kind): pretty as a pretty thing

Malabar spinach: My but this is a pretty plant. I haven’t seen anything quite so eyecatching on a kitchen garden stand since the arrival of the lablab bean, amid much flurrying of garden writers’ notebooks, a few years ago.

In fact they aren’t that dissimilar, both having a tinge of sultry deep purple, pretty flowers and an attractive habit of scrambling fetchingly up the nearest support.

They also both like it as warm as you can get it: definitely one for the greenhouse or polytunnel, this one.

Raw, the leaves are thick, crunchy and fleshy and taste of green peppers. Cooked, it’s more like our type of spinach, though it doesn’t collapse into nothing the moment it hits a pan. There’s a green version, but my favourite is the red one, Basella alba ‘Rubra’, pretty enough to put the most traditional of ornamental climbers firmly in the shade.

'A Space to Connect and Grow', by Jeni Cairns and Sophie Antonelli (Gold, Best Summer Garden)

Recycling in the garden can be tricky to get right.

It’s all very well making planters out of teacups and planting strawberries in colander hanging baskets or nailing tin cans to your fence posts, but unless you judge your junk with faultless taste and a steely determination not to overdo the winsome artlessness thing it’s all too easy to end up with a garden that looks like someone’s emptied a dustbin over the top of it.

Or you can go the other way. Stuff winsome artlessness: we’re talking heavy metal. Think big junk, the kind that involves welding torches, and it’ll give your garden a Mad Max grunge vibe, transcending its rubbish-tip origins and entering a hard rock zone of f-you style.

Metal’s ‘A Space to Connect and Grow’ did just that at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and got a gold, best Summer Garden and my vote for the most inspirational garden in the show.

It’s a fusion of community, art and gardening (as all the best gardens are) and best of all it’s a kitchen garden, so packed full of veggies as well as flowers.

Possibly the best vertical planting wall ever

It brings together the Green Backyard, a community allotment in Peterborough, and the talents of artist and garden designer Jeni Cairns – and not a single thing in it is new.

But this is junk gardening on a grand scale. Forget raiding the recycling box: go down your local farmyard instead. Here are some of Jeni’s rubbish ideas which really caught my eye:

Oil drums: tin cans with attitude, these industry cast-offs upcycle into planters and, with the addition of a couple of reclaimed grilles and bike wheels, the funkiest wall planters I’ve ever seen.

Paint them different colours, and get busy with the plasma cutter to etch pretty designs in the side and you’d never guess their grubby origins.

Pick them up from MOT garages, remove the top if it has one (you’ll also need to bash flat the metal edge so it’s not sharp any more), and clean with detergent or by simply burning out any residual oil. It’s a good idea to line it before using it for growing veg, too.

Bits from a combine harvester... or funky water feature?

Steel reinforcing rods: if you can find a supply of these they are invaluable in the garden. Try a friendly local builder or Freecycle. Tie them together in threes for a heavy metal bean support; or do as Jeni did and thread them through holes in upright fence posts to make a frame for an espaliered apple tree to grow up.

Reclaimed scaffold boards: these are already a bit of a theme in my own veg garden so I know just how useful they can be. Phone round local scaffolding companies and you’ll find one willing to sell you their cast-offs, though be prepared to pay around £10 a board as most are getting wise to the demand now.

It’s still cheap: they’re 13ft long, around 8″ wide and a good inch and a half thick so really sturdy timber for raised beds, walls, planters, decking…

Agricultural machinery: I confess this isn’t one I’ve ever tried, but Jeni must have a very co-operative farmer living nearby (or one which has a particularly unfortunate track record with combine harvesters).

An old metal conveyor belt and an unloader pipe become a jazzy water feature; and best feature in the whole garden, an old bit of sheet metal plasma cut into filigree shapes becomes a beautiful roof garden planted with herbs.

Pea ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’

To quote a well-known advert for a certain shop which I’m sure used to sell clothing but now seems to be a supermarket for posh people:

[cue 1970s lounge lizard soundtrack and sultry voiceover of the sort I can only manage when still bleary and half asleep]

This is not just a pea. This is a mangetout pea.

I never used to bother growing mangetouts. They didn’t appeal to my ever-practical nature: you can’t freeze them, you see, or make them into pickles, or do anything really except eat them as fresh and crisp as possible. What use is that come the apocalypse?

Then a couple of years ago I was given a packet of the sumptuously-coloured ‘Shiraz’, a purple mangetout so beautiful it’s a shame to pick it. The flowers are even more lovely, like a bicoloured sweet pea in mauve and cerise.

I thought that was good: but then this year, not being organised enough to get hold of some more ‘Shiraz’, I grabbed a packet of the standard green mangetout.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Forget practicality. Forget being organised and storing stuff for winter and having plenty in the freezer. I have been missing the point for years. This is what veg growing is all about: sheer, unapologetic, joyous, live-for-the-moment indulgence.

So what if you don’t catch all your pods in time and they get a bit past their best? Pick ‘em off and despatch to the compost heap*. There’ll be more in the morning. So what if you can’t squirrel away your surplus? Rejoice in the now; carpe diem; live every day like it’s your last. Sometimes when you can only have pleasures fleetingly, they are all the sweeter for the extra anticipation.

We have been eating like kings for weeks now. I sowed my mangetout in March, three to a 10cm pot, just like I do my regular peas. They shot up: out they went in early May. I forgot to support them properly and we had a dicey few weeks in which it was touch and go whether they’d overcome the damage inflicted on them by the slugs.

But though these may be luxury crops par excellence, they are no prima donnas. They hitched up their skirts, left their slug-tattered bits behind and headed determinedly for the skies. And now we’re picking mangetout by the saucepan full. We have them raw in salads, and my kids take them in to school in little bundles to snack on. And they’re still going strong.

They are so utterly, utterly delicious. Five minutes of steaming and there they are, crisp and sweet, dancing on your tongue. That’s if you can be bothered to cook them, of course: I snack on them as I pick them, and when I’m walking past on my way to get something else.

It’s at times like this that I know growing your own is the best un-told secret out there. Look at all those norms shelling out £1.50 for every mingy little 200g packet. I paid a couple of quid for the seeds I bought, and we’ve been picking half a kilo every couple of days for… oh ages. It’s not even like I’ve sown loads, either: two 3m (10ft) rows, that’s all. And I’ve even got enough seed left over to sow another batch this week so I’ve got new plants to crop into autumn. Hah. Smug doesn’t even start to cover it.

If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool shelling pea and pickle devotee, it’s still not too late to convert to a life of hedonism. Grab yourself a packet of seed and sow this week – early July at a stretch. If the veg garden is packed, give them a roomy container outside the back door. They’ll be pumping out the pods from September to the first frosts: and you’ll be a convert from the first bite.

*I don’t hold with those who say you can leave mangetout peas on the plant and harvest them as podding peas. That’s what you’ve got podding peas for. And yes, I have tried doing it: small, a little tough, and not much flavour, like meeting Marlene Dietrich in her bedridden hermit years and wishing you’d turned up a bit sooner.

A nice cup of tea

Looks boring - but it's among the most useful things in my veg patch

Right at the back of my veg garden I have a little triangular corner in the shade, where not a lot else would grow. All through the spring has been unfurling a colony of large, slightly sandpapery leaves.

They’re not edible. They don’t flower. I suppose the roots are quite interesting: you can grate them and put them in poultices to cure cuts and heal sunburn. But on the whole, it’s not somewhere you’d make a beeline for every morning.

But just lately I’ve been checking them in growing anticipation for the moment I can take my first cut: for this, dear reader, is my comfrey patch, and it’s my secret ingredient for huge tomato plants, burgeoning salad pots and champion pumpkins.

Comfrey is a notorious weed and in fact this isn’t the only comfrey patch in my garden – I also have a purple-flowered variety rampaging through the borders in the back garden, plus a fetching patch of white-flowered (and lower-growing) comfrey next to the oil tank.

But this patch is the best-behaved: it’s ‘Bocking 14′, producing only leaves and sterile flowers so it doesn’t self-seed (though it does spread, which is why it’s firmly kept in bounds by a raised bed).

The one you don't want: pretty, but fiendishly invasive common comfrey

Those fuzzy leaves are packed with nutrients, particularly potassium which is the main ingredient in tomato food. Extract that, and you’ve got your very own, home-made plant food, and for pretty nearly free.

You don’t have to stick to comfrey, either: you can make free liquid fertiliser out of nettles (high in nitrogen and great for leafy veg), seaweed (lots of micronutrients) and manure, though I’ve always thought that last one was just gilding the (rather smelly) lily.

Anyway, getting all that goodness out of the greenery is the same process as brewing tea, and indeed all of the above are known as compost teas. But – as so often with tea – the actual art of brewing is a matter of personal taste and preferences.

Here are your basic three methods:

Middling strength tea, loose leaves:
I’m a loose-leaf kinda gal, myself. It’s easier, for one thing. And it’s stronger that way. Here’s how you do it:

1: Pack as many comfrey leaves as you can into a bucket. Really cram them in: the more you get in there, the stronger your tea.
2: Put a brick on top to hold them down.
3: Fill the bucket with water.
4: Leave for six weeks (a lid on the bucket helps keep in nasty niffs – though I find the smell isn’t quite so bad with this method).
5: Pour the resulting brown mess through an old kitchen sieve to strain out the mid-brown tea. I dilute mine about 10 parts water to 1 of tea, but it’s a matter of judgement: paler brown needs less diluting and darker needs more.

And here's one I brewed earlier. Yum.

The teabag method:
A bit of fiddling about making your teabag, but at least you don’t have to actually handle the gloopy stuff. Plus this is a great method for water butts – just hang a teabag in your water butt and you have automatically fertilised water.

1: Sew the neck and sleeves of an old t-shirt shut, then turn it upside down so it makes a bag. Fill this with leaves, compost or seaweed (you can also use socks tied to the handle of the bucket, but you’ll need more than one to get the quantities needed for a good strong cuppa).
2: Tie the t-shirt around a broom handle and then suspend the whole thing over a bucket of water so the broomhandle rests across the top and the teabag sits fully submerged.
3: Wait a week or two before using: the beauty of this system is that you can just leave the teabag in the water and drain the water off as needed (it helps to have a tap let into the bottom of your container). If you start with a good quantity of organic matter it should last you the whole season.

The kind of stand-your-teaspoon-up strong stuff your great-aunt likes:
This is the method recommended by the sainted Joy Larkcom, my veg-growing guru and purveyor of unfailingly reliable good advice. It’s effectively a concentrate of the above teas and produces the strongest, most nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser you can make: dilute this stuff well before using.

1: Buy a water butt or let a tap into the base of a plastic dustbin (you can buy water butt taps separately). Stand it up on a double layer of bricks.
2: Stuff the barrel with leaves and put a piece of heavy wood on top. Weight this down in turn with two or three large stones.
3: Put the lid on the water butt or dustbin, and wait around ten days.
4: After this try opening the tap. The very dark brown concentrate should start to drip out (with increasing speed the longer the process is under way). Catch it in a jar and dilute up to 20 times with water.
5: You can keep this system going indefinitely: just open up your water butt, remove the wood plus weights and top up with more leaves as required.

Raw materials for tussie-mussie making outside the American Museum's herb shop

On the whole, I’m a pretty rugged sort of person. A disproportionate amount of my gardening time seems to be spent hammering scaffold boards together, or powering my way through waist high weeds at the business end of a petrol strimmer, or hauling improbably deep tree roots out of pits in the ground.

But the anti-bramble gauntlets, steel toecapped boots and safety helmet hide a more delicate soul. The soul of a person who likes tussie-mussies.

I love the word tussie-mussie. I always think of it as an Americanism: their version of our more prosaic nosegay (bit prim, that) or posy. But the Americans came to tussie-mussies late, around two centuries late in fact, when New England ladies took to carrying them on their way to church. The word was first coined in 15th century England, long before we even knew there was an America (there is an excellent rundown of its meanings, including one rather surprising one I won’t mention here as it’s a family-friendly blog, here).

The 1400s were a time when gardens were inescapably useful, usually tended by monks (if the gardens were big) or peasants (small) and producing herbs for strewing, medicine and particularly scent. Things were very smelly in Middle England. Pomanders were one solution: containers, usually wooden, occasionally more elaborate, laced with perfumes and spices (oranges and cloves came later).

Roses, borage, lily of the valley and bellis

But if you were a peasant you couldn’t afford such luxuries, so your only option was to fall back on the little herb patch scratched from the ground outside the back door of your hovel. A little bunch of herbs and scented flowers held in the hand close to the nose (hence nosegay) was just the thing to take your mind off the stench of open sewers, old food and – at a time when the threat of plague hung noisomely in the air – things you really didn’t want to think too much about.

These days tussie mussies are seen mainly at weddings. But I think they’re long overdue for a little revival. I came across the ones in the pictures at the American Museum, where they pop them in the ladies’ loos. Think I might do the same here: our bathrooms do occasionally smell a little mediaeval (sorry, I know, too much detail, but the house has two teenagers in it, that’s all I’m going to say).

To make your tussie-mussie:
1: Pick your scented ingredients from the garden, preferably in the morning when their essential oils are at their most concentrated. Most of the plants you’ll need are probably already growing in your garden (if not, plant some straight away as they’re among the most lovely you can grow).

Love this warm orange rose glowing among the cooler shades

I’m talking lavender, rosemary, mint (in pots), deeply scented roses (the apothecary’s rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, for authenticity). Lemon verbena and lemon balm add a citrussy note, while sage and artemisia are more savoury; scented-leaf geraniums come in peppermint, rosewater or orange scented.

2: Start with the centrepiece – usually a rose; then surround it with stems of a contrasting flower (say, lavender). Then a layer of a herb – rosemary perhaps? – and keep going, building up your posy in concentric circles around the central flower, until you have a substantial fistful.

3: Tie the whole thing together with fine string, pulling it tight to hold your posy together, and finish off with some raffia or ribbon if you like. Or stop after the string and pop your tussie-mussie in a small jar of water (those square mustard jars look nice), then tie the ribbon round the top of the jamjar and pop it on the bathroom windowsill.

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