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Climate change veg

Dwarf Green Curled kale: just keeps going, and going, and going

It is a source of wonder to me that in my poor battered veg garden, awash with rainwater and gloopy with mud, there are still things I can harvest. Not much, it’s true, but enough to keep the Sunday roasts chugging out of the oven and offer a few home-grown ingredients for ersatz midweek meals.

Most veg suffer in some sort of weather extreme. Anything that flowers or fruits, including peas and beans, are sporadic at best in gloomy, chilly summers. Extreme cold sends heat-lovers like sweetcorn, squash and courgettes into shivering paralysis; warm, wet winters rot otherwise hard-as-nails rhubarb crowns, put paid to your crops of blackcurrants, strawberries and apples, and give you disappointing garlic bulbs that more often than not haven’t bothered to split into cloves. And heat sends most leafy crops bolting for the skies.

So what’s a girl to do in a world where the climate is changing to the point of unrecognizability? The one thing that’s absolutely certain is that nobody knows what’s in store for us next. It could be a tomato summer of the hosepipe ban and shade netting variety; or a lettuce summer with 2012 levels of dampness and general depression (god forbid).

Well, if it’s guarantees you want, plant this lot. They’re my real troopers: the ones which survive no matter what, even through the winter of 2010/2011, when the drifts of snow were so deep the only reason I knew I had a veg garden was the gentle dip between two hedges. When it finally melted (with accompanying floods), these were the ones still standing, still productive and only a little bit battered.

They’re year-rounders, too, a constant background presence in my garden through spring, summer and winter. And if you remember, last summer was a bit of a scorcher. In my chalky, free-draining garden it gets pretty dry quite quickly given a bit of sunshine: lettuces bolted, rocket laughed at the idea of producing leaves and went straight to the seedpod stage, and as for spinach – I may as well not have bothered planting it.

This lot carried on regardless, good-naturedly staying leafy and productive instead of panicking and sending up flower spikes. They didn’t even need that much extra watering.

They’re not the most exciting veg. Most of them don’t flower or have fruit or do anything particularly spectacular. But anything that can survive a Noah’s Ark standard flooding, a three month drought and a mini ice age is my idea of rock-solid reliable. These are the ultimate climate change proof veg, and if you’re left dithering over what to grow in the face of ever more unpredictable weather, these should be top of your list.

Kale: not all kales are equal in the climate change stakes. Cavolo Nero (aka Tuscan kale) doesn’t take kindly to deep freezes, for example, and Red Russian is battered and shredded by gales. But Dwarf Green Curled  and Redbor are almost completely indestructible.

Chard: as climate change takes hold I’m beginning to wonder if anyone will ever bother growing weather-sensitive spinach again, especially when you’ve got just-as-good chard to hand. Again, choose varieties carefully. Coloured and red-stemmed ‘Rhubarb’ types need protection in a rough winter and in a really bad one may just give it up as a bad job. White-stemmed ones, on the other hand, are tough as they come, weathering ice, gales and snow with a breezy insouciance. They even store water in those fleshy midribs, making them reliably drought-resistant too.

American land cress: I grew this as a replacement for watercress a couple of years ago, and it’s been with me ever since. It looks just like watercress but grows happily in quite dry soils – it just gets more peppery. Give it deluges of water and it romps away: freeze it solid and it just looks pretty and then carries on growing once it’s thawed again. It’s an invaluable and plentiful salad ingredient, and once planted, you’ll have it forever.

Corn salad: If you don’t like your salad ingredients peppery, rosettes of fleshy, mid-green cornsalad leaves are the closest you’ll get to lettuce without the tendency to bolt in warm weather or rot to rags in the cold. Let it self-seed once and clumps of it pop up in unexpected places forevermore. It’s lucky it tastes so good, or  you’d call it a weed.

Beetroot: Forget the fancy ones: grow traditional guaranteed performers like ‘Boltardy’ for root veg you can grow all year round, surviving temperatures from -10°C to +30°C without shrivelling to nothing or erupting into flower. The roots may be smaller and woodier in drier weather, but if that happens just eat the leaves instead: they’re a lovely earthy mildly beetrooty version of spinach.

Apres le deluge

Splosh, splosh, splosh

gurgle gurgle

drip drip drip drip

When they come to play the soundtrack of this winter, it will be definitely a bit sloshy.

There will be a spine-chilling, howling base line and the odd heart-stopping ripping crashing percussion as trees fall over, their roots fatally loosened in the dissolving soil.

So this is what climate change feels like. Not sure I like it much.

Even up on our windy little hill perched above the inland lake once known as the Somerset Levels (now rechristened the Bay of Taunton), any thought of gardening has long since been battered out of my head by the endless water cannons of horizontal rain.

We haven’t been flooded, thank goodness, though the lane alongside the house has developed two happily gurgling and extremely fast-flowing streams on either side, collecting in a small but deceptively deep pool at the bottom which is sometimes, but excitingly not always, navigable by 4×4.

The 70mph winds have persuaded our phone line to part company with its pole not once but twice (I am piggybacking shamelessly on other people’s internet connections to send this), most recently for a nine-day stretch and counting. But on the whole we have emerged unscathed.

I can’t say as much for my plants. Even our usually free-draining chalk is struggling to cope with this apocalyptic scale of deluge. It may only be a few cabbages and some sprout plants, more able than most to tough it out, but poor, sodden things, they’re drooping forlornly in their puddles of standing water in a state of stasis, neither growing nor dying.

But let’s not get maudlin: the mass drowning of garden plants by long spells under water is, on the whole, less of a catastrophe on the veg plot. After all, we sweep everything away and plant it all over again every year anyway.

The damage you need to worry about happens largely unseen, underground, where dead earthworms rot in anaerobic, lifeless soil once the waters recede.

So if your plot has spent much of the last five months looking like its owner has taken up aquaculture, here’s how to get it back up and on its feet again:

  • find out if the groundwater might have become contaminated, say from sewage, while it was flooded (your local council should be able to tell you).
  • if so, avoid eating crops standing at the time, and don’t grow food you eat raw (like salads) for a year or two afterwards: you can grow food that you’re going to cook, though
  • stay off the soil till you’re sure it’s dried out – you’ll do more damage than good
  • once you can start working it, your first priority is forking in well-rotted organic matter – and plenty of it
  • sow green manures on any beds you’re not using right away to dry out the soil and bring it back to life
  • feed plants in spring and mid-summer with a slow-release fertiliser until the soil gets its strength back
  • if a drought follows the flood, permanent crops like fruit bushes and artichokes may need extra watering – ironically plants which have survived flooding are more prone to drought stress
  • install raised beds so your plants’ roots are out of the water if – god forbid – this happens again.

Parsley ‘Moss Curled’

I have a cherished list of kitchen garden favourites you just can’t keep down. They’re the ones you’re still picking three months after you sowed the seed: the ones you secretly get a bit bored of since you can just feast on it every day if you want to and still it comes back for more.

For fantastic value they’re hard to beat. You spend a quid or two on the seed, and that buys you as much food as you can eat for week after week after week.

Cut-and-come-again lettuce fits into this category; in the washout that was 2012 I sowed a row of ‘Salad Bowl’ in March which I then picked constantly all summer until it finally, reluctantly, bolted some time in early autumn.

Runner beans are long-distance veg, too: I start picking in about July and I’m still going strong in October. Even better are the veg that soldier on right through winter: kale ‘Dwarf Green Curled’, chard (especially the white varieties), corn salad and American land cress. Sow them once and you’ve got ‘em for the year.

And for sheer bloody-minded persistence, this one tops them all. My patch of moss curled parsley is still flourishing, having survived the coldest spring, warmest summer and wettest winter we’ve had since oh I don’t know, and we still pick fistfuls of it every week to scatter with abandon into soups and pastas and just to chew as breath freshener after particularly powerful curries.

I sowed it a whole year ago, in February 2013, and apart from planting it out I haven’t done a thing to it. No protection, no fuss, no coaxing or persuading: it just gets on with producing yet more frothy green deliciousness for us to enjoy.

Yet parsley is living proof that the class system is alive and well, in our kitchens at least. Connoisseurs would eat Uncle Ben’s boil-in-the-bag rice for a week rather than admit to using moss-curled parsley: in the best (for which read most snobbish) kitchens, it’s flat-leaved Italian parsley all the way.

I’m not sure where poor old moss curled got its chavvy reputation. It may be its unfortunate beginnings, since we first discovered it when parsley was parsley, with none of this choice malarkey, and it was without exception used as a slightly pointless garnish.

My first close encounter was as a waitress in a down-at-heel hotel near Worthing on the south coast, where it was de rigeur to plop a sprig of moss curled parsley on top of the prawn cocktail after you’d done that thing with the sprinkle of paprika over bright pink marie rose sauce (we used to mix it in a bucket: mayonnaise, tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Not quite so exotic when you put it like that).

And it never quite recovered: the only time you’ll find moss curled parsley in the kitchens of the chattering classes these days is if they happen to be holding a deeply ironic 70s revival party.

Humph. What a lot of rubbish. Moss curled has a stronger, more parsley-ish flavour: and if you’re going to grow parsley, there’s not much point growing stuff you can barely taste once it’s in the pot. It’s also so much more pretty in the garden: a wonderful powder-puff froth of tightly-scrunched green leaves which makes a superb ground cover and bubbles over the edge of raised beds or low walls to edge a line of peas or lettuces with a riot of brilliant green.

And it keeps going. Boy, does it keep going. Poncy flat-leaved parsley is reduced to a little clump of frightened-looking baby leaves by now, shivering too close to the ground to even think about picking. I did for a little while put a cloche over my moss curled last autumn, but it was growing so boisterously it shrugged it off in disdain. I think the only time you’d need to give it protection is if there were a really hard frost, or snow: and then only to make sure the leaves were still edible. The actual plant wouldn’t need it at all.

I’ve just sown the seed for the next row of moss curled, as although last year’s is still in rude health it will, being biennial, throw up flower shoots some time in early summer. Then, of course, you can save the seed for next year, or just let it seed itself around and pot up the seedlings. Now that’s what I call a class act.

Last chance saloon

Sorry, can’t stop. Must dash. Don’t you realise it’s nearly the END OF JANUARY!!! And I still haven’t finished planting the garlic! Let alone pruned the apple trees or mulched the veg beds or…

Yep, I’m well on the road to my annual all-out late winter panic here.

The trouble with the colder months of the year is that you know you won’t be doing a lot of gardening as nothing is growing, so you make lots of ambitious plans about redesigning the second terrace and putting in the zig-zag raised beds in the veg garden at last even though you know either one of those two jobs will take you at least two months of hard graft.

Then the rain comes down… and down… and down… and you’re lucky if you can still see the terrace let alone re-landscape it. You spend at least half your allotted winter-projects time scowling out of the window and counting how many days you’ve lost to the weather so far.

And then you find yourself, again, at the end of January having half-done everything you meant to do in the heady, optimistic days of autumn.

Some jobs I’ve had to write off: there comes a point where you just have to accept that you’re not going to manage to grow winter salads in the greenhouse this year when you’re still in the middle of changing over the soil in the borders and it’s mid-December.

But all is not lost. There’s still a week or two to go till the first seeds go in: and that’s enough time – just – to squeeze in those jobs you should have wrapped up by the end of winter. As long as you do everything at around twice normal speed, get a head torch so you can carry on gardening after 5pm, give up eating, talking to your husband or sleeping when it gets really bad, these are the winter jobs it’s still not too late to finish:

Planting garlic: garlic cloves need up to two months at 10°C or lower in order to split into bulbs, so your chances of growing good garlic diminish with every day you delay sowing past the end of December. Do it in the next day or so, though, and you’ve got a fighting chance.

Planting fruit trees: there’s a good argument for letting container-grown fruit trees sit out the winter still in their pots. As long as you have them planted by very early spring (February) they’ll spend their time growing instead of sitting in winter wet rotting their roots.

Planting bare-root fruit: there are some real bargains in the bare-root fruit department to be had at the moment, as long as you don’t mind having less choice. Same applies as for fruit trees: plant them by early February and they’ll establish straight away.

Pruning fruit trees and bushes: apples, pears, blackcurrants, raspberries: all need some TLC while they’re dormant and won’t notice a snip or two. Get your skates on if you haven’t done it yet though: they start waking up from mid-February.

Planting tulips: not, strictly speaking, my department: you’d better be off to James’s place if you want good advice about tulips. All I know is every year I intend to plant them in November: every year I still have some left in January. However, I recently read about an experiment which got flowers (albeit late) from tulips planted in February: so there is still hope.

Mulching: I usually reckon on having my veg beds thickly mulched before winter sets in, to keep the frost off, rain in, weeds out. You know the drill. But since I’ve been building my veg garden, the mulching has fallen by the wayside this year. No matter: as long as you get it done before it’s planted, it’ll still do the job.

Stocking up on seed trays, pots, compost and seeds: there won’t be a moment to do this next month as you’re cracking open the first seed packets, and you don’t want to reach out for a pot (or your favourite varieties of carrot/beetroot/lettuce delete as necessary) and find it’s not there.

(c) Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

I’ve been looking at the moon just lately.

Usually you only really notice the moon when it’s full, and it’s a clear night, and as your silhouette lengthens on the path before you and you put the torch back in your pocket it occurs to you that the hippies may have been right after all, and there really is such a thing as moon shadows.

Such an apparently esoteric thing as the cycles of the moon may pass you by while you’re scurrying around getting on with things. But they’re the key to a very great deal of what happens: the tides, the female of the species, my dogs’ moods.

When you start thinking about it, our non-lunary 30- or 31-day month looks increasingly arbitrary.

Time to out myself: I’m a closet hippy chick. When you spend your formative years weighed down by multiple bangles, playing Tangerine Dream and the Floyd in a fug of joss stick smoke, it kind of stays with you.

I’m terribly sensible these days, of course, with a mortgage and a dishwasher and not a single Indian smock top to my name. But I’m still a believer in the importance of forces of nature we barely understand: the power of the soil, the purity of the air, the pull of the moon.

It just makes sense to me that something that can govern the difference between high tide and low tide would also have an influence over water levels in our soil, and so the growth of our plants.

So this year I’m planning to dabble in the ancient art of moon gardening, just to see if it makes any difference.

There are three types of moon gardening: synodic, biodynamic and sidereal. Biodynamic I’m crossing off the list right from the start. Nothing, and I mean nothing will induce me to spray weeds with urine from a sterile cow, even if I could find one, or for that matter bury anything wrapped in a stomach in my veg beds.

The sidereal method has something to do with the moon’s position relative to the stars: I can’t even envisage what a 30-degree section of the moon’s orbit even looks like, let alone work out which one it’s in.

So that leaves synodic: a posh way of saying you plant according to the four phases of the moon.

Starting from a bright new moon, the first two, roughly seven0day quarters are when the moon is waxing: in the second two it’s waning back down through grampian, half and crescent to dark.

The theory is that you sow and planting fruiting and leafy crops in the first two quarters, when the ground water is highest, and roots in the third quarter. In the fourth, when water levels are retreating, use the time to weed instead.

In my diary it helpfully notes down the days of the new moon, so this isn’t quite as difficult to work out as it might seem. There was a full moon yesterday (explaining why my dogs were so antsy), so we’re now in the third quarter of the moon’s cycle: for the next week, so roots (that’s my long-overdue garlic going in, then).

Get them in by next Thursday, then have a break for a week: the next new moon isn’t far away, on Thursday 30th, just in time for those early greenhouse crops to go in.

It all seems so easy when you write it down like that. As long as I don’t complicate things any further I think I might just about manage it. I’ll let you know.

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