Suddenly the sky is a brighter shade of blue; the clouds are cotton wool bubbles floating across the chimneypots. It is still warm, but there is humidity in the air, a softness that we haven’t felt for several months. It is autumn.
Just as I feel this new phase in the rooftopvegplot, so do the plants. I’ve noticed volunteer nasturtiums, wild celery and lettuces coming up all over the place. It is time to plant autumn seeds. Last weekend I tidied up the greenhouse, finding a bit of space at last where the seed trays can live.
What I've Sown
I searched through my seed collection for likely candidates for the winter harvest. I found many that I wanted and laid them out to sow. But something was missing. Somewhere in the back of my mind another plant yearned to be sown. What could it be? What is missing from this list?
Salad Bowl - a cut and come again staple. These are the green, not the red ones. Mr Fothergill. These are not so resistant to frosts so I will keep them in the greenhouse, if times get cold.
Merveille d'Hiver - this heritage variety from Vilmorin France, is supposed to be exceptionally resistant to frost, so I will plant it out, under glass, when I have some space.
Autumn King - Thompson and Morgan, is another special winter variety and resistant to frosts.
I also planted rocket, this should still crop well before the winter comes and spinach, Matador - a late variety, suited to autumn sowing. The kale, dwarf green curled, will grow quite large, but is best cropped when it is young and sweet, and before the bugs get at it!
Perpetual spinach - I'm trying this variety as I've had limited success with others. They don't like the shallow soil I can provide, so I've had to grow them in deeper pots.
Parsley, frisé vert foncé CV Verbo. This is another Vilmorin seed packet that I picked up last time I went to France. The packet recommends that the seeds can be sown right through until September, though it does warn that parsley is a Mediterranean plant. I grow it in the greenhouse during the winter.
Mizuna MR Fothergill's. Im running out of my favourite Mizuna which is a type called Kyoto, so I'm trying out this 'English' variety.
Watercress, Cresson de Fontaine a Larges Feuilles - another Vilmorin packet that grew like wildfire last winter. It tasted fiery too.
Autumn sowing is rather different from spring sowing. Everything you've ever learnt about keeping the plants protected, about cold soil or about watering goes out of the window. Seeds grow brilliantly at this time of year, they hardly need any cosseting. And I don’t worry too much about succession sowing, because as it gets colder, the plant growth will slow down. These cool weather crops won’t damage, or go to seed, as they do in the summer months. A lettuce I sow today may be ready for cut and come again by October, but it will probably be equally succulent if I leave it until February, before I pick it. You can’t do that in the summer! So I've sown three types of lettuces, hoping that they grow up and then sit, waiting for me to thin or cut them throughout the winter.
But as I sowed, I still had that feeling that something was wrong. I searched through the seed box, wondering what I could be missing. But I could not find anything. So I covered the seeds with vermiculite, popped plastic lids on them and wheeled them into the greenhouse.
I did other things. I met my mum in the park and we sat in the sun and chatted. I took the dog for a walk. I went to bed, hoping to dream of the missing vegetable. But my slumbers were uninterrupted by gardening tips.
Two days passed and the seeds I had sown started to come up. I've never had such fast or such plentiful germination! Even though I sowed quite thinly, I will have to thin the seeds. Roll on a lunch of micro-veg. Then just as I was photographing the seeds trays for this blog, the notion came to me. I realised what I had omitted to plant. I'd forgotten to sow lamb's lettuce.
Now, even knowing its name I still had difficulty. I couldn't find the seeds anywhere. This is partly due to the fact that this little weed, that has been flourishing for centuries, goes by so many different names including corn salad, nut lettuce or field salad. And because I buy so many of my seeds abroad, I might also have filed it under M, for maché, its French name, or perhaps doucette or raiponce. Luckily I hadn't even known its German name, Rapunzel, because my romantic leanings might well have led me to place the packet along with radish and rocket. There is a website that lists 25 different names for the plant, http://www.epicroots.com/mache_around_the_world.php. How would I ever find it?
I like the name lamb's lettuce. It is apparently so named because young lambs in February and March love to eat it, when it emerges fresh and tasty in the fields and hedgerows Its Latin name is Valerianella locusta. It is a cool season crop, needing cool weather to grow and liable to bolt if temperatures remain higher that 24°C. It needs no special care and is frost proof to minus 5°C, though I notice that the market gardeners in France put bed sheets over it on cold nights, and keep them covered, even in the market place if it’s at all nippy.
I read that it is often found in corn fields. (Though, I have to admit, that I can find no images on the internet to back up this assertion.) But if it does grow in corn fields, what does that tell us? It tells us that it doesn't need too much space, that it will withstand drought, and that it doesn't mind being crowded, or slightly overshadowed. In fact many people report that it does better in slight shade. I have found it grows happily indoors, in winter, in a shallow tray and will also grow in companionable proximity to other plants, or crowded in on itself. See here
The thing about lamb's lettuce is that it spoils easily and when it does, you know about it. It begins to smell of old drains. Ironically that means that it is an excellent candidate for home growing. I eat my salads within minutes of harvesting. You never smell dodgy drains round here!
I turned the seed box upside down, in the end. The loss of my favourite seeds, forced me to do a bit of a clear out. The box was so full it wouldn’t shut properly. But I never found them. I’m off to France next week, so maché, will be top of the list when I visit my favourite Pas de Calais garden centre. It won’t matter if I don’t sow the seeds until October. They will grow in the shorter days of late autumn just as well.
You may wonder what is happening to those lettuces by now. here is an image taken just a few seconds ago.