Five reasons I’m ok with growing edibles

July5

Click for larger imageAs I’ve mentioned, my fruit and vegetable growing experiment is having some surprising results: not only is this stuff edible, but I’m enjoying it in so many ways. As my own personal Eatin’ Project, this year I have dedicated a 1.2 m raised bed to showing myself and my kids how to turn seeds into food. I’ve been gardening hard for about five years and until now resisted growing crops, mainly because I hate fleece, netting, cages and the other prophylactics that allotmenteers protect plants with. If you’re in the same mindset I was, and you’re considering branching out from flowers only, here’s some food for thought:

  1. Bugs on the lettuce aren’t a dealbreaker: Deborah once commented that she’s always preferred store-bought lettuce to growing her own, worried there might be bugs in it. But the raised bed (and the fact that it’s surrounded by wide gravel paths) has kept most slugs and snails away, and the rich soil along with an open, sunny position means other pests haven’t taken hold. I’ve found only a few bugs on the lettuce — just the odd greenfly or earwig. They haven’t done much damage, they’re easy to clean off and somehow they don’t bother me. The insects are a reminder that these plants, which we’ll eat, are alive. That appeals to me.
  2. Edible plants are pretty: the green swirl of the lettuce, the ferny carrot foliage, and now the purple blossom on the potatoes are all attractive, and the tiny handful of night scented stock and cornflowers I included in the raised bed bring in colour and pollinators. The rest of the garden (especially the romping rose hedge and main border, shown above) gives me plenty of space to be floral. The raised bed doesn’t need to do that job: its plants are more of a happy, leafy jumble — as if the fridge vegetable drawer has relocated outside.
  3. Food shopping sucks: I hate food shopping — my husband usually does it — but until now it’s been the only way to get fruit and vegetables into our diet. Having the good stuff growing outside the kitchen makes it much easier to eat healthily, and by pulling a few leaves from many lettuce heads, we always have salad. And it tastes better than Tesco’s.
  4. The kids are intrigued: my three-year-old girl likes to pull up a stumpy Parmex carrot, hand it over for washing, and crunch it (the carrots we grew in sandy soil taste better than those in the rich bed). Her brother eats raw spinach leaves and holds out his bicep for everyone to feel the difference. They both eat the few strawberries we’ve managed, and scattering apple lumps left over from breakfast keeps the blackbirds away from the berries (the cat also does guard duty). Both kids are so proud that we’re growing food and have shown off the raised bed to visitors. I think their enthusiasm is what I feel best about.
  5. Cloches make protection pretty: I bought three Haxnicks plastic bell shaped cloches for £10 and I’ve used them over and over again. They look pretty — a bit of a Victorian vibe without the weight of glass — and lettuces grow large and perfect under them.

I will grow more fruits and vegetables next year, but I’m a bit relieved that the Eatin’ Project hasn’t replaced my interest in  roses. This June was a rose bonanza in my garden, with the heaviest show I’ve ever seen, and the air has been thick with fragrance: the fruity Rose de Rescht, the Bourbon rose Zephyrine Drouhin and the lemony Etoile de Holland, plus the spicy clove of the old-fashioned pinks, and the outrageously sweet honeysuckle, Lonicera Japonica “Halliana.” I also took in Sissinghurst, Nymans and Hever Castle for the world’s biggest, best rose fix. (Endless pictures of the trip are here. Don’t go to Nymans on Monday-Tuesday like we did on first attempt — it’s shut.) When it comes to roses, the force is still strong with me; but I know now that my garden has room for something more.

Are you trying vegetable growing for the first time this year? Can you suggest any protection for fruit and vegetables that’s also attractive?

I have dedicated a 1.2 m raised bed

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Fear of toads and other 2010 resolutions

December29

Click for larger imageI know the garden is never done, and all that, so in figuring out my resolutions for 2010, I’m not promising to get things perfect. But there are a few stupid things I did in 2009 that are helping me settle on attainable goals for next year.

  • Screaming at toads: I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again this year, after humiliating myself in 2008 while chatting to my mother-in-law, clearing out some expired summer pansies. But there I was again this autumn, shrieking at a toad I’d unearthed when rolling away some heavy stones near the dianthus. I’m not sure what became of him, but he was last seen smacking his head on the window ledge, trying to escape my sound effects. 2010 will be different, I promise.
  • Nothing November: as I explained here, I planted the hall border when I was expecting my daughter, planning for it to be a rage of colour for her every year. But the autumn flowers there are gone by her birthday at the end of the month, and nothing else fills the gap in November. I’ll probably bite the bullet and go for grasses; anything is better than the void.
  • Greenhouse frostbite: I thought the sunny position and wall-hugging construction of my greenhouse would protect it from frost. The perished seedlings and cuttings say otherwise. Last night the temperature fell to -6 Celsius and I’ve only just managed to save some of the tougher ones. Since we re-organised the house, we have space in the unheated conservatory to let many of them come inside for the winter without getting over-warm.
  • Crop failure: the stumpy, poisonous-tasting carrot above, and a few sorry Charlotte potatoes, were the sole survivors of my halfhearted vegetable growing this year. I’m not good at this! In 2010 I’m starting extremely small with the Eatin’ Project — a 1 m x 1.2 m raised bed, my first proper effort to grow-and-eat. I think it was the Copenhagen talks — and all you vegetable-inclined gardeners on Twitter — that have helped me accept that growing some of my own food is an imperative. My all-consuming passion for flowers doesn’t really need to consume every bit of my garden space. Stay tuned for updates.

Happy 2010 to you all, and good growing.

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Fake tree is a real relief

December20

Click for larger imageIf Christmas was part of your childhood and your memories of it are generally positive, you’ll probably look to replicate what you can of Christmas past when you’re all grown up. For me, a favourite memory is lying down and looking up through the boughs of my parents’ Christmas tree, with red and green lights casting a glow on the ornaments, and breathing in the pine scent. I’m not sure if I did this before or after seeing Pluto’s Christmas Tree, a 1952 Disney short (you can watch it in full here — thanks, YouTube), where Mickey Mouse and his dog are thwarted in trimming their tree by the chipmunks inside it. Watching Chip and Dale leap about, loosening lights and stealing ornaments, I was sure nothing could be better than living inside a Christmas tree, and I always imagined myself as one of them when I peeked through the branches every year.

So it’s extra strange that, this year, I’ve bought my family’s first ever fake Christmas tree.  I’m stunned at how happy I am with it. There is no scent of pine. Its boughs are too thickly woven to see up through. It’s unnervingly symmetrical. But even with all its conical artificiality, I dig this tree. So many things about it save me time and hassle, this year and in future Christmasses, and so it hits the bulls’ eye for me.

It has great clearance at the bottom for presents; our old real trees have been so crowded at the bottom that presents spilled far into the room. Its shape may be too perfect, but it reaches to the ceiling while keeping to its corner, and I don’t miss the real trees that thrust their fat rumps into the room, begging to have needles knocked off. The kids love the tree’s tall twinklyness, and with the “night” setting on my Fuji, I can capture endless Disneyesque, inside-the-tree shots. Most important, I’ve avoided hacking down a young tree to create a decoration that is only briefly perfect. This tree will last, and I am already appreciating how fresh and festive it still looks after 10 days. With all its Christmasy aroma, the real tree and its slow death inside the house is a downer, and the decline is visible so quickly, even with TLC. And did I mention we’re not running the vacuum cleaner every day to erase signs of decay? Plus, no more two-hour tree-hunting trips in December, the month when I can least spare the time.

Instead maybe I’ll get to spend a few hours in December as many other gardeners do, laying plans for the next season. My mother phoned from Boston yesterday to say she had sent us some money for Christmas, so I found myself in Dobbies this afternoon with a budget in mind and a list in hand. I now have the essential ingredients for The Eatin’ Project, as I’m calling my first proper attempt at growing vegetables in a 1m x 1.2m raised bed. I have been rubbish at growing vegetables but I will make it happen this year. If I teach my kids nothing else about the garden, it should be basic skills about how to turn seeds into food, just in case the climate goes to hell sooner than we think and commercial agriculture simply can’t support us all. If I invest five or 10 years making all my mistakes now, maybe I can help them get a better start.

Merry Christmas to all.

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