Monday, 22 October 2012

Harvest - the highs (and lows) of the season

This wasn't the easiest year to create a kitchen garden: a warm spell in March brought many plants to life, only to be soaked by the wettest April on record, followed by a equally rainy June and with temperatures below normal. In the Secret Garden, we struggled with globe artichokes, which we hope will finally produce some fruit next year, and our heritage potatoes, although tasty, were very low yielding. We raised some good sweet peppers, but the jalapeno plants never really got going; our tomatoes succumbed to blight.

Even in the worst of years, you can count some successes. Elsewhere on this blog we have already documented how happy we were with a bumper crop of Mexican tomatillos, and on Sunday, our Secret Garden Club session concentrated on harvesting those crops which have come good in this mellow autumn.

Pumpkins and squash
Spaghetti squash, ready to be picked.
We raised our squash this year following the 'Three Sisters' planting methods of the Native Americans. There's more detail about the Three Sisters here, but the general idea is that sweetcorn, squash and climbing beans are grown together, the beans providing anchorage for the corn, which provides the beans with a climbing frame. The squash ramble at ground level, providing cover which suppresses weeds and keeps the soil moist underneath.

The squash plants didn't give us a glut, but we harvested good-sized spaghetti squash, Connecticut Old Field, the Italian Berrettina Piacentina with its dense orange flesh and chestnutty flavour, and Futsu, a compact Japanese variety. The courgettes were planted elsewhere in the garden and gave us a steady of not particularly prolific supply (it's not often you can say that: usually one courgette plant is not enough, and any more than one is a glut).

Courgettes and squash seeds should be sown indoors in pots: two seeds to a pot and then the weaker seedling thinned out once they’ve germinated. Once they have true leaves, they’re ready to be moved outside to be hardened off, ie, the plants are allowed to become gradually accustomed to the colder, windier air outside. Then they can be transplanted to the open ground. They like a rich soil so if you have manure or, better still, fully composted kitchen waste, dig that in before you plant out the squash. They do have a tendency to ramble all over the garden – if you don’t have the space for this, you can train them up a fence or trellis. The stems of pumpkins and squash are remarkably strong and will bear even very large fruits without them falling.

If you have a particularly rampant squash plant, nip out the growing tip after it has produced 3-4 fruits, then it can concentrate on growing these fruits to a decent size, instead of lots of little ones at the stem which probably won’t make it to maturity in our - comparatively - short season. Rest fruits on a tile to prevent damage by damp, slugs, woodlice, etc. Courgettes should be picked regularly, otherwise they will grow into giant marrows and the plant will stop growing more courgettes while it’s putting all its energies into the marrow.

Squash should be lifted before the first frost. You can tell they are ready by tapping near the stalk – you should hear a hollow sound. Try to keep a long stalk attached to the plant when you pick them  and store somewhere warm, dry and light to finish ripening before you eat them. If you eat them immediately after picking, they will taste very green and raw, particularly the orange-fleshed varieties. The flavour won’t sweeten and deepen until they have ‘cured’ for 6-8 weeks. Check them regularly as some store better than others – I have kept squash for up to eight months before eating them.

Borlotti and other beans
We sowed climbing borlotti beans in May as part of our Three Sisters plan, and harvested a small but tasty crop last month. Most of the plants managed to entwine themselves around the corn stems satisfactorily, although several made for the fig tree and climbed up that instead.

Borlotti beans do well here in London, the bean pods are spectacularly beautiful, as are the beans themselves. The fresh bean pods are bright crimson, housing creamy beans splashed with purple. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick borlotti bean pods to cook and eat fresh. They’re delicious, especially served with a squeeze of lemon, some salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

But leave at least some on the plants to keep for use later in the year. As summer wears on into autumn, the pods will change from bright pink flecked with cream, to a dark purple papery husk.

Pick the pods once they’ve turned dark and dry, but before the first frost, usually sometime in October. Thread the pods together and hang them up somewhere airy until all the pods are dried out. Then shell the beans. They should be dry already and clatter when dropped on the work surface. If they land with a soft thud instead, they need more drying.

Finally, freeze the shelled beans in a bag for about 48 hours - this quick freeze just ensures that if the beans were harbouring any bugs, mites or insect eggs, they are killed off.

Once out of the freezer, spread the beans out briefly on kitchen paper just to check they’re dry again, then pour into a jar with a tightly fitting lid.

Keep in a dark cool place and they will last for months – until your next bean harvest, in fact, if you haven’t eaten them all by then.

Beans, whether you grow them for green beans or to dry the mature beans for use in the winter, are a fast crop. They don’t like the cold and should be sown when the soil warms up in April or even May. They will catch up very quickly.

You can buy seeds for dwarf bushy plants or climbing plants. While the bushy plants are less work – you can reach all the beans easily when harvesting and you don’t have to build a frame for them to climb up – the climbing plants are better croppers. You’ll get much better yields and beans over a longer period of time from a climbing plant.

Like squash, beans like to be fed well. Before planting, choose the spot where you want to grow your beans and mix lots of kitchen compost into the ground. If you don’t have kitchen compost, use commercial compost and feed such as seaweed extract.

Figs are surprisingly easy to grow here in the south of England. In fact, trees can become very vigorous, but you will see many spreading leafy trees with very little fruit on them.

The trick to making your fig tree bear fruit is to restrict its roots. Find a sunny sheltered site for your newly-bought fig tree, and plant it in a pot sunk into the ground, or line the planting hole with stones, so that the roots are contained and you get a bushier tree with more fruit. Our summer season isn’t really long enough for a full crop of figs. When the frosts come, remove any immature fruit left on the tree. It is the very tiny pea-sized fruit which will develop into mature fruit the next year.
Brown turkey figs harvested in London.
Once your fig tree grows multiple branches, you can prune it in spring, removing any old, dead, crossing branches so that the tree is nice and open.

Cavolo nero
This is also called Tuscan kale, or Black kale, and has become very fashionable in recent years. By fashionable, I mean that not only will you find it on the menu in Clerkenwell restaurants, but also that you can buy it in Waitrose for about £3.99 for a few stems.

This implies that 'cavolo nero' is surely imported specially from Italy, where it is best grown, but in fact cavolo nero is simply a form of kale (a member of the brassica family), and grows extremely well right here as you can see. It’s also highly decorative, with these distinctive indigo leaves, and so the plant looks good in a mixed border.

Cavolo nero is best started off as seed in modules in April or May and left to germinate indoors or in a greenhouse. Once the seedlings develop their true leaves they can be hardened off – like the pumpkins and squash they need get used gradually to being outdoors after being indoors. The cold nights, winds, rain, and strong sun will all be terrible shock to the system of a seedling that has been in a warm settled, windless spot all its life.

When you transplant cavolo nero, space the seedlings about eight inches to a foot apart. They will need protection against slugs and snails – in the Secret Garden Club we use home-made copper rings, made with copper tape and sections cut from plastic water bottles. This is extremely effective – slugs and snails won’t cross copper. And it’s better than using pellets.

Brassicas are also vulnerable to whitefly – you’ll see clouds of them like tiny snowflakes whenever you disturb the plant. They’re not terribly damaging, but it’s not nice when you get your leaves home and you’re rinsing them off at the sink. We’ve had good results this year with planting marigolds around the cavolo nero plants – the marigolds exude a chemical which repels whitefly and it’s worked very well.

Apart from this, birds, especially pigeons, like the leaves. Consider throwing a net over the cavolo nero if they’re a problem. Garden plants shouldn’t be so affected since there’s usually a relatively high cat population keeping birds off the veg, but on an allotment site you may have to net your brassicas.

Once you’ve protected against whitefly, slugs and birds, your cavolo nero should grow very happily. It will need watering in a drought and when the seedlings are turning into full-grown plants, but from seeds sown in April, you should be eating cavolo nero from August, throughout winter and into February-March the next year. Worth a little bit of care and attention.

We planted our first blueberry plants in the Secret Garden just a week ago in anticipation of harvesting our first fruits next July. We have four 'Goldtraube' blueberry plants, which have a reputation for being heavy croppers and highly flavoursome.

Blueberries need an acid soil (lower than pH5.5) and our London clay on its own isn't nearly acid enough. So each plant occupies its own 30cm pot, and each pot is sunk into the soil so that the tops are at ground level. Sinking the pots reduces water loss, which is helpful since blueberries like plenty of water. A yearly topping up of ericaceous (acidic) compost keeps them fed, and I also like to spread the shredded needles from the Christmas tree around the foot of the plants as a slightly acidic, weed-suppressing mulch in January.

Jerusalem artichokes
I always think Jerusalem artichokes are great plants for anyone growing vegetables for the first time, so long as they like Jerusalem artichokes, anyway. If you do like them, and you’re not too bothered by the after-effects – not for nothing are they known as 'fartichokes' in our house - then they’re a rewarding crop to grow.

For a start, they’re indestructible. Not noticeably bothered by pests. They’re reliable: dig up the plant and there, underneath, will be the artichokes. They also pass the shop test: they’re not widely available in supermarkets and they’re stupidly expensive when they are. They are bountiful: a dozen tubers planted in March-April will begin producing artichokes to feed you in November/December all the way through the winter and into the early spring.
Finally, they’re economical: you only need to buy artichoke tubers once. The following year, select 8-12 nice plump tubers from the current crop and plant these in March-April to provide the next year’s crop.

The only care notes I can really think of are 1) when the seedlings emerge you might want to look out for slugs and snails. As soon as they produce their true leaves which are tougher, the slugs lose interest, but at the very beginning the growth might be slow if your plot is very sluggy. And 2) round about August-September, the plants will grow very tall and may even flower – and when they do you’ll see that they are related to sunflowers. However, if they’re flowering, they’re expending energy on producing flowers rather than fat tubers, so it’s a good idea to cut the plant down as we have here, otherwise high winds can blow them over and anyway you don’t want them putting on top growth any more.

And if you do like them, they’re very versatile in the kitchen. They make a lovely creamy soup; I always make a Jerusalem artichoke gratin as part of Christmas lunch; you can roast them under the Sunday joint like roast potatoes and they also make tasty chips. You can whizz them up with aromatics to make a kind of Jerusalem artichoke houmus, you can use them to make JA pancakes – like a potato pancake – and I’ve also had them raw, shaved very finely in a salad.

1 comment:

  1. Wow these are great and healthy vegetable garden plants I like that Spaghetti squash..

    Garden Plants


Feel free to leave comments, we always appreciate feedback...