Grow plants from seed and let the healing begin

March25

Click for larger imageTell me something more exhilarating than growing from seed. I’ll bet you can’t. Drop a hard little fleck onto a fertile bed of damp compost, and just days later feel a gasp in your throat when the seed leaves push their shoulders up into the light. At the moment I’m looking at the purple-streaked leaves of baby baby beets, hairlike shoots of spring onions and round carrots, the fleshy heads of robust wild lupines, and the minute green specks of teensy alpine strawberries.

A number of the experts on some of the US gardening podcasts I listen to have been saying recently that they prefer to buy “starts” (young plants) for some of their gardening. And compared to buying a broad bean seed packet I’ll never use up this year, maybe six broad bean plants would save money. It would certainly save time. But give me seeds any day. In gardening I’m all about the miracle, less about the practical.

The real world presses in on me, as I’m sure it does on you: this week alone offered me a big dose of unloveliness, including one vomiting bug (mine), then another one (my son’s), the imminent loss of a client (government cutbacks) and the likely sale of the house I grew up in — all against a mustn’t-grumble backdrop of guilt as images of tsunami, war and death scrolled across the TV.

I need my gardening to be as absorbing and as miraculous as possible if it’s to be an adequate salve against the real world. Those seed trays may give me beets in June. But right now I see a windowsill full of hope, and that’s the food I need.

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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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Lettuce rejoice and be glad

June2

Click for larger imageWhat’s wrong with this picture? Nothing — and that’s what’s strange. My Eatin’ Project has for the last few weeks been giving me perfect cos lettuce, proving once and for all that lettuce is a foolproof, quick win for first-time vegetable growers like me. Claire at Plant Passion had commented earlier this year that she is telling everyone to go for lettuce if they have a small space and/or they’re new to vegetable growing, and how right she was. The first time I cut one of these lettuces, I just stared at it there in my hands. I couldn’t believe I had done this — those perfect whorls of green were, well, perfect.

The sun was too strong just now to get a decent picture of the potato bags, but they are thriving, wedged between the edge of my tiny greenhouse and the side of this raised bed, which I’ve built up to double height of 12 inches. Crammed in there I have cos lettuce, some younger oak leaf lettuce, and wee rows of Parmex carrots interplanted with White Lisbon spring onions to hopefully throw off the canny carrot fly. There’s also a small pot of carrots nestled in the middle of it all. Strawberries are at the corners and a young Tamina tomato is it at one edge: hopefully I can support it against the tiny greenhouse if needed. Never outside of Tesco’s have so many vegetables been crammed in next to each other; it’s a bright, airy spot, so I’m hoping this density will be productive rather than encourage disease.

Interesting discovery: the potato bags do triple duty as potato incubators, a place to put unwanted old compost as I earth up the growing plants, and an unexpected place to germinate seeds. I’d dumped seed trays whose contents had never germinated onto the bags when earthing up: a few of those seeds liked the potato bag better than my propagator and came to life, giving me an extra five or six carrot plants which are now thriving. Go potato bags!

Click for larger imageLet’s not pretend, however, that my heart isn’t still with the roses and the wisteria, which is looking stunningly fabulous at the minute. I’ve got a long-standing gripe against J Parkers who sent me the wrong wisteria, which means its racimes are crowded against the wall (W. Sinensis has perkier bunches than my W. Floribunda, and looks better wall-trained); my plant would really rather be doing its dangling thing from a pergola, but I hate to complain when getting a wisteria flower is so hard in the first place. Yet why is it that a huge portion of things I buy mail order aren’t the plant that was marked?

I tried not to go mad planting vegetable seeds, but I do need now to find a sheltered place for rather too many purple sprouting broccoli plants, which are overdue to put their feet into the ground. Move over, roses, here come the brassicas.

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Veg: It’s gardening, but not as I know it

March27

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The very last of the snowdrops have just gone over. Delayed flowering has made for the loveliest and unlikeliest of bedfellows: snowdrops on crocus, daffodils and tulips emerging together with the hyacinths, and delphinium foliage that’s now growing like a rocket. With so much noisy life finally breaking the winter silence, I’ll be free of all the planning and the purchasing — mostly bulbs, mostly unnecessary, but what else was I supposed to do in January? — and can start planting.

My enthusiasm for the Eatin’ Project is growing — just. After all the faff with early vegetable seedlings and sorting the raised bed, I’m feeling protective towards these baby plants. That said, I have turfed them into the bed already — heavily protected winter cos lettuce, with a pot of carrot seedlings at the middle — both to see if they’re made of strong stuff and because the lettuce, for one, really did look ready. The carrot container is raised that extra bit above carrot fly altitude, and the seedlings are inter-planted with spring onions to throw any highfliers off the scent.

It just doesn’t feel like gardening. In my greenhouse are glossy hellebore seedlings, hair-like snakeshead fritillary seedlings that have just emerged after a year in pots, and white cosmos planted just weeks ago which is already pushing up its first leaves. I look at them and I feel actual joy. They’re all sharing the greenhouse with the newer cos lettuce seedlings — but I look at them and I feel nothing.

I think it’s because the lettuce has no prospect of being beautiful. This afternoon I let out a yelp when I saw my first morning glory “Grandpa Otts” seedling raise its heart-shaped head. I consider this the most beautiful seed-grown plant in my garden, with violet flowers so intense they make me feel my vision is being pulled to the end the spectrum. My passion for roses, too, is down to the aesthetics: the first time I saw the David Austin Roses catalog, I couldn’t believe anything could be so beautiful.
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I do like the ferny carrot foliage, and the strawberries I’ve edged the bed with (thanks for the idea, Grace) are pleasingly pleated. But the aesthetic aspect of the vegetables I’m growing is pretty rubbish. The two pear trees I’ve put in are a different story: I love the progress of their lengthening, pointy buds and I know blossom is on the way.

I need to persist with this project. And last weekend it was a bit thrilling to plant some vegetable seeds with my three-year-old daughter. “I’m a gardener!” she said. That’s my girl.

What’s your feeling about the beauty of vegetables? Do you need beauty in the plants you care for? Can you give plants the love they need if you don’t admire them?

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