Growing Food

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2011-03-01
  • Publisher: Frances Lincoln

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In this revised and updated edition of her New Kitchen Garden leading gardening writer Anna Pavord shows how to grow fruit and vegetables so that they make a decorative - as well as delicious - addition to the garden. She describes how to incorporate vegetables in flower borders and offers ideas for flexible contemporary variations on the traditional kitchen garden or potager. Eminently practical, she explains simply and clearly how to assess site and soil and devise a planting plan. She provides all the information you need to be able to grow a wide range of vegetables, herbs and fruit, recommends the best varieties for looks as well as taste, and provides recipes so that you can make the most of your harvest.


INTRODUCTION Ordered profusion is the hallmark of the best kitchen gardens. If you can add to this a sense of being cut off from the real world, then you are very close to Eden. For the ultimate sense of detachment, you have to have walls, sunny walls, where pears can ripen mellifluously against warm brick. But even without walls, even in the smallest of spaces, you can recreate a sense of richness and abundance in your own garden by growing trained fruit trees to make living screens between one part of the plot and another, or planting exotic-looking lettuce and frilly parsley among the flowers in your border or window box. A survey carried out in 2009 suggests there are 600 acres' worth of window boxes in Britain. That could represent a lot of salad crops. A dilettante gardener may grow a passable show of flowers. Vegetables signify a deeper level of commitment. To cut yourself off from growing food is to cut yourself off from a long and resonant tradition of gardening to survive. Even if you no longer have to feed yourself from your plot, without fruit and vegetables to hand you deny yourself some of the great pleasures of gardening. Think of the warmth on your tongue of a strawberry freshly picked from under its canopy of leaves. Think of the sense of pride you get when sitting down to a supper that you have made entirely with produce from your own plot. You need to make the most of those moments. After the pride comes the inevitable fall, when somebody discovers a caterpillar mummified in the artistically arranged spears of calabrese on their plate. It is only quite recently that vegetables and fruit have been herded into separate areas of the garden and that the kitchen garden has acquired its drear overtones of overblown cabbages and decaying runner beans. When, with increasing affluence and ease on the part of gardeners, the first flowers crept out of the physic gardens to decorate cottage plots, flowers, fruit and vegetables all grew together in happy profusion. For centuries, the kitchen garden continued to be as decorative as it was useful. George Eliot set the scene in her novel Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). [SET OUT AS PROSE QUOTE]No finical separation between flower and kitchen garden there; no monotony of enjoyment for one sense to the exclusion of another but a charming paradisiacal mingling of all that was pleasant to the eye and good for food. The rich flower border running along every walk, with its endless succession of spring flowers, anemones, auriculas, wall flowers, sweet williams, campanulas, snapdragons and tiger lilies had its taller beauties such as moss and Provence roses, varied with espalier apple trees; the crimson of a carnation was carried out in the lurking crimson of the neighbouring strawberry beds; you gathered a moss rose one moment and a bunch of carrots the next; you were in a delicious fluctuation between the scent of jasmine and the juice of gooseberries.[END PROSE QUOTE]There is no reason why you too should not be in that same state of delicious fluctuation, if you abandon some preconceived notions about the 'proper' place of plants. Perhaps you have a summer jasmine straddling an old fence at the back of a border. Perhaps the border itself has been a source of irritation. Something is wrong with it. You may decide that what it needs is a series of landmarks to punctuate its sleepiness. You could put in acanthus, but how much more fun it would be to use mop-headed standard gooseberries to bob up between the campanulas. Grown on straight metre-high stems, they have the sculptural quality of pieces of topiary, and are particularly enchanting if you leave the berries to hang and ripen until they are as richly coloured as amber. Alternatively, you could draft in some bold clumps of globe artichoke to liven up the scene. The leaves will bring to the border the drama that it needs and you will have the buttery bonus of the artichoke heads to look forward to. That is more than an acanthus will ever give you. You may have two small plots at the end of the garden that you use for vegetables. These grow in straight parallel rows: cabbages next to lettuce, carrots next to parsley. Just by manipulating the rows of vegetables themselves, thinking about contrasts between the shape and texture of their foliage, you can make the plot start to sing. Try setting the frilly leaves of a red lettuce such as 'Lollo Rossa' against the drooping blue flags of leeks. Use the glossy crinkled leaves of a red-stemmed chard next to the puffs of feathery foliage that grow above the white bulbs of Florence fennel. Line out your Savoy cabbages with their swirling skirts of leaves next door to carrots, which have leaves as good as the finest ferns. There are several other things you can do to improve the appearance of your plot. The first is to choose cultivars of vegetables and fruit that are in themselves more decorative than the norm. There is no need to take this to ridiculous lengths. The prime purpose of a leek is to give comfort on a cold, graceless day when the buses are late and your children more than usually intractable. Flavour is the prime criterion of any fruit or vegetable. But you can look for other attributes as well. Among leeks, for instance, there is an extremely handsome cultivar called 'Bleu de Solaise' (also known as 'St Victor'), which is hardy and wonderful to eat. You would expect this from an old French variety, but the bonus is its foliage, leaves of a rich deep purplish blue, which you can use to great effect among red frilly lettuces and the pale frizzed foliage of endives. You might think of experimenting with the old-fashioned runner bean 'Painted Lady'. Runner beans were originally brought from America to Europe as decorative climbers for the flower garden, and with 'Painted Lady' you can see why. The flowers are neatly bicoloured, red and white, charming when grown over an arch, perhaps mixed with the white flowers of a summer clematis. Even the prosaic Brussels sprout can dress itself up if you want it to. Try 'Rubine', which is suffused all over with a deep purplish red, the kind of saturated colour that looks sumptuous against tall pale cones of Chinese cabbage, the kind of solid form that stands out boldly against an insubstantial lacy clump of fennel or line of coriander. The other thing you can do is to bring flowers back into the kitchen garden, recreating the 'paradisiacal mingling' that George Eliot wrote about. Line the paths between your plots with neat clumps of the alpine strawberry 'Baron Solemacher'. Set behind them a ribbon of pinks, choosing perhaps the deep blood-red flowers of 'Hidcote'. These contrast boldly with their own pale grey grassy foliage, but they will also strike up an alliance with the strawberries. As you bend to pick a strawberry, the heady, spicy scent of the pinks will be where it needs to be - right under your nose. There are many different ways of combining fruit, flowers and vegetables in a single plot. You might like to plant purple-headed alliums among leeks (their cousins), set purple aquilegias with your red cabbage, grow marigolds with curly kale, lay down lengths of blue cornflowers in between your fennel and carrots, scatter seed of the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, to sprout among the onions or use brilliant blue anchusa behind clumps of purple-leaved sage. Certain annual flowers, such as marigolds and nasturtiums, have a special affinity with vegetables, for they too can be eaten, the petals of marigolds sprinkled over a green salad, the leaves and seeds of nasturtiums used to add extra spice and bite to a sandwich. George Eliot was writing about a time when the kitchen garden was at its full-blown, spectacular height. At Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries, Scotland, during that period, the kitchen garden contained vineries, melon houses, carnation houses and hothouses for indoor plants. There was also a glass fruit house that was 150m (500ft) long and 5.5m (18ft) wide. A cast metal path ran down the middle with edges raised to make tracks for a railway wagon that carted muck into the glasshouse and produce out. In the 1880s, the house was packed with nectarines and figs, peaches, pears and plums, all trained up wires strung from the roof. Pots of pelargoniums, begonias and other ornamentals were massed on stepped shelves against the wall. Fourteen gardeners worked for the Duke of Buccleuch at Drumlanrig under the eagle eye of David Thomson, one of the best gardeners of his day. They formed a Mutual Improvement Association and kept careful notes of the subjects they discussed at their meetings: Forcing of the Fig, Cultivation of the Raspberry, Man's Inhumanity to Man. It is a tradition from which we have much to learn. If you are interested in good food, there is an overwhelming reason to grow your own fruit and vegetables. Without good ingredients you cannot expect to produce good food. Commercial growers of carrots, celery, peas and potatoes worry less about the taste of their vegetables than the size and uniformity of the crop. When you are growing your own, different standards prevail. To enjoy asparagus, sweet corn and purple sprouting broccoli at their best, they need to go straight from plot to pot. If they don't, taste deteriorates along with texture. Some produce such as French beans, strawberries and raspberries can be expensive to buy. If you have your own, you can indulge to your heart's content. These are practical reasons to grow fruit and vegetables at home. The best reason, though, is the pleasure that they give and the beauty that they add to the garden. Few trees in spring can match the elegiac performance of a mature pear, pouring out its heart in white blossom against the blue sky. Few flowers can produce a smell to equal the scent of a ripe greengage drooping, intoxicatingly, from a tree fanned out against a warm wall. Few foliage plants can match the bravura performance of a kale such as 'Nero di Toscana', rising in a bold fountain of near black leaves ruched as intricately as smocking. All these pleasures can be yours. To re-create Eden, just plant, watch and wait.

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