This is my second year growing crops in what I like to call my ‘secret garden’. It’s actually a neighbour’s walled garden, which they don’t use, and is entered via a locked gate like a tale from Beatrix Potter. I’m thrilled to say I won first prize for my beans, herbs and dahlias in the local Hackney flower and produce show. It’s not the greatest accolade as the show doesn’t attract more than a handful of entries, but compared to last year’s slug war, 2017 has been amazing. I’ve not bought salad ingredients for months and I’m still picking raspberries for breakfast in October.
As a veg plot beginner I thought I would share what I’ve learned. Last autumn I wrote a post about the disastrous results of my first year growing: ‘Borrowing my neighbour’s garden – my first allotment’. Slugs efficiently ate everything I planted. I was disheartened but not defeated and in November I watered with slug-eating nematodes purchased from The Green Gardener. This dramatically reduced the slug population. I also mulched with a fine horse manure from Thompsons of Crews Hill and got a cold frame ready to protect seedlings. This planning ahead paid off and I recommend that anyone interested in growing does a bit of winter planning. Come spring, you’ll be all ready to go with rich, fertile soil.
I eat lots of salad. The main thing is that leaves need plenty of water to be sweet and tender. I gr0w mixed leaves as a cut and come again crop in the greenhouse and the cold frame. I use large polystyrene containers which I salvage from the fishmongers – just poke drainage holes in the bottom and fill with compost. When it gets hot salad leaves quickly to go to seed so keep them in a little shade. This year I’ve grown mizuna for the first time and I really like this Japanese leaf which is a bit like rocket but, for me at least, less prone to bolt.
I tried growing celery but, although full of flavour, the stalks are tough so I’m only using it for making soups and stock. Self-seeded spinach and chard grow all over the plot and I pick the young tender leaves to toss into the salad leaf mix. The older, thicker leaves are wilted and added to pasta and quiche. I’ve had a good crop of French beans which have also been a regular in salads, lightly steamed, along with slithers of raw baby courgette.
I balked at the price of fruit bushes in the garden centre so bought two each of blueberry and gooseberry from the lovely herb stall run by Mr and Mrs Grover in Columbia Road flower market. They all fruited and have since put on a lot of growth so I’m hoping for really good crops next year. I am learning that gardening requires patience. Plants take time to become established.
I’m growing summer and autumn raspberries and a loganberry. I’ve inherited a feeble blackcurrant bush (two berries), rhubarb and lots of strawberries, all of which were already in the garden. These plants are all happy to be revived and coaxed back to life with regular watering and my home made comfrey fertiliser. The berries are usually eaten with yoghurt and granola. All of the soft fruits need harvesting as soon as they ripen to beat the birds and insects. If you have a glut just pick and freeze or compote – if you delay you’ll lose them.
My other tip is to water deeply. My secret garden is over the road so I don’t visit daily or have the luxury of my own water supply. I have to water from a butt with a watering can. The raspberries are always plumper after heavy rain so if I watered more regularly the results would be better.
I grew several varieties of tomatoes this year, Sungold, Gardener’s Delight, Tumbling Tom and Shirley were bought as plug-plants. My friend Nancy kindly donated Flamingo and Rosella from her batch of seedlings. Her choice was inspired by James Wong’s book ‘Grow for Flavour’. He recommends feeding with molasses, giving tomatoes an aspirin spritz and keeping the plants dwarf size. I did what he said but my life is busy so I am never fully on top of pinching out side-shoots and feeding. Nevertheless the tomatoes have been plentiful and delicious – may favourite being Sungold.
I picked the remaining green tomatoes last weekend because one of the outdoor bushes was showing signs of blight. I will make green tomato chutney with this final crop but their red, yellow, orange and pink predecessors have featured in salads, pastas and salsas since late July.
I love broad beans but they never really took off and I only harvested a few handfuls. I grew beetroot from seed but this was also disappointing and I only produced a few decent sized roots. The French beans, which were bought as plug-plants, by contrast, have been cropping for a good three months. The only issue here was that I should have given each plant it’s own sturdy bean pole. I crowded two plants to a triangular bamboo frame and as the plants grew the poles couldn’t take the weight and began to collapse. You live and learn. We’ve enjoyed them steamed and stir fried, hot and cold. When you leave them on the plant a bit too long and the flesh becomes thick and tough I simply pop the sweet beans from shell and cook them instead.
An unexpected treat was a small but incredibly tasty crop of new potatoes. They had seeded from a few potatoes accidentally left in the ground last year. I decided to leave them growing to see what happened. They were the best potatoes I’ve eaten all summer.
The other thing that’s been plentiful are courgettes. I bought four small plants and the trick was to put them in bigger pots and keep them in the cold frame until the plants were well established. Last year I planted them out when they were too tender and the slugs ate them. The joy of courgettes are the flowers which I have tried stuffing but more often than not just throw in the pot.
Interspersed with the veg I grow herbs: morrocan mint, oregano, thyme, tarragon, comfrey, sage, flat leaf parsley, rosemary, basil and Thai basil. It’s just lovely to have fresh herbs to add to your cooking.
You probably already know this trick but rather than buy chemical feeds it’s easy to make your own organic fertiliser from comfrey leaves. Simply steep comfrey leaves in a covered bucket for 3–4 weeks until the liquid is brown and smelly. Dilute this with 1:10 with water and hey presto you have liquid feed!
I know that gardening is not everyone’s cup of tea. It takes a certain type of woman who doesn’t mind grubby fingernails. But for some of us it is just therapy, pure and simple. I love it and as I grow older the more I enjoy growing my own food, cooking, eating and sharing it. In a mad, bad world it helps me close the circle of life.