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The autumn fall is magnificent in its beauty. I think that beauty stems from its fleeting quality, as inevitable as any other fall from grace. The leaves on my rooftopvegplot have begun to turn crisp and brittle. The green seeps out of them. Their colour goes from russet, through purple, to orange and gold. A few bright nasturtiums beacon red and yellow in the gloaming of the evenings. Red tomatoes glow on browning vines. They taste delicious at this time of year. Is it their scarcity that we savour?
But however beautiful autumn may seem, it is always sad. I try to console myself with hopes of spring.
Fruitfulness at this time of year is far more positive. It is not the fall of leaves, but of seeds that brings optimism. On my desk, casually laid out upon a hand-written recipe for madeleines are a few withering rose-hips. A spray of paper-thin pea pods have loosed their grey-green wrinkled seeds, which roll about as I type. The pre-printed home-grown seed packets have been unleashed from their wrapper. I have already dried industrial quantities of wild celery. Newly labelled packets groan with hundreds and thousands of tiny round black baubles, each one a potential plant.*
Outside the bronze fennel has been seeding for weeks. No doubt we will get volunteers all over the plot. (I don’t mind, I love their delicate burnished fronds and buttery umbels.) A few weeks ago we had an Antirrhinum incident in the greenhouse, when a stray snapdragon plant decided to bombard its tiny seeds all over the floor. Again, I don’t really mind. The odd snapdragon in the greenhouse will look wonderful next year and will certainly attract pollinators. Most of the pole beans will now be left to seed. Even the courgette and cucumber are hardening up, as if willing me to save at least one or two fruit for procreation.
I’m not an avid seed saver. I prefer to let nature take its course, to allow the seeds of nasturtium, morning glory, calendula, and cornflower to take root where they will. That way I am, to some extent, assured of the survival of the fittest seeds.
My vegetable seeds are generally purchased from reputable suppliers. In such a small garden as this I’m willing to overlook the cost of a packet of seeds in order to ensure a good crop next year. In home seed saving, it is far too easy to save the weak along with the strong. Last year I replanted my biggest, juiciest garlic globe from the year before. The individual bulbs all grew strongly, but when I lifted them, none had separated. I got twelve big individual cloves, only about double or triple the size of the ones I’d planted and tended for nine months. This year I’ve ordered a variety of hardnecks from the Isle of Wight garlic farm. http://www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk/Hardneck-Seed-Pack.aspx If one variety doesn’t work for me, I’m hoping the others will. And even if the crop is poor, with hardneck varieties I will get a bonus crop of scape (the shoots and flowers) to stir-fry in midsummer.
However I admire some of the extraordinary amateur seed savers around. My grandfather was the original. He’d have no sooner paid good money for a packet of broad bean seeds, that he would have run naked through the streets of the Suffolk market town where he lived. I found his attitude alive and well, in our recent trip to the low countries. My forays into garden centres revealed a paucity of seeds. Had they already been sold, I wondered. No, people don’t use purchased seeds as much as they do in England or France. I wandered through the verdant allotments in Doesburg (Netherlands) where we stayed. The plots were rich with spinach, cabbages and fat pumpkins. Winter salads were already sprouting large. The row covers were stacked, gleaming and clean, at the ready, in case of an early frost. But of seeds packets – I saw none.
I think that our modern preoccupation with seed saving comes from our revulsion in the face of sterile hybridisation and our suspicions of the adulteration of seeds with sprays and mould inhibitors. Where can we be sure to find really good quality seeds?
Unfortunately it seems to be that quantity is quality in our seed industry. After experimenting with different sweet pea varieties for several years, I’m going back to an old fashioned packet of mixed sweet peas from the supermarket. The very best crop I even had, originated from a packet found in our local ironmongers. Similarly I love my Gardener’s Delight tomatoes and my Salad Bowl lettuces. Hundreds and thousands of packets of these staple seeds are sold every year. It stands to reason that the ones I buy are likely to be fresh and fecund.
I like to buy from Thompson and Morgan and their French sister company Vilmorin. Perhaps I’m a sucker for advertising, but the French packets seem so much more alluring. There’s even a Vilmorin seed boutique in Paris, that is on my radar. http://www.vilmorin-jardin.fr/histoire/10/boutique-historique-vilmorin/ I buy Kings seeds, who sell very serviceable planting strips, which kurb my enthusiasm for over planting, I use Suttons and Mr Fothergill.
But there are more specialist seed suppliers whose unusual seeds are excellent. This year I had excellent results from a packet of borage seeds purchased from The Edible Flower Shop. www.theedibleflowershop.co.uk
Chiltern seeds have long been favourites of mine, partly because of their tall, slender veg seed catalogue, which is light on images, but packed with information. When you read their catalogue, every word convinces you that you are gleaning real seed knowledge and that you are not only in the company of an expert, but a poetic expert at that! www.chilternseeds.co.uk
Chiltern Seeds was set up in 1975 by Douglas and Bridget Bowden, keen amateurs, I think they were true children of the seventies. It was a time of plummeting currencies, the oil crisis and the miners’ strike and many people were propelled, sometimes by redundancy, sometimes by ethos, into trying to live the good life. Now their daughters, Heather and Sally have brought the business back to the Chilterns, occupying a barn conversion near Wallingford. They don’t grow all their seeds, sourcing them instead from established growers all over Europe. I’ve never had a duff packet or a failure in germination from them and I’ve been purchasing their seeds, off and on, for over twenty years.
What a shame that we can’t import seeds from the USA. The heritage seed business over there is big business, but many of the suppliers are delightfully micro. My absolute favourite is www.amishlandseeds.com
I’m clearly not alone, because when I searched online for Lisa von Saunder’s company, her website came up, right at the top of the list. Her garden in Reamstown, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is situated in level fertile land, studded with vestiges of the old deciduous forest that provided building materials and fuel for the god fearing Amish people who populated the county. In her own section of this Garden of Eden, Lisa has begun to grow heirloom Amish varieties that were in danger of extinction. She visited old ladies, wrote letters and generally begged and borrowed seeds, until she can now boast an extraordinary range. Many of these varieties come from the old world. Sometimes I look though the catalogue and something we consider quite standard will be feted on her site. On other occasions seeds of quite unknown varieties or even species, hail from Lithuania, or Poland or the Balkans. The original Amish settlers, like my grandfather, took their seeds with them, wherever they grew.
But seeds are not just to be sown. Holding within their shell the kernel of life, they are packed with goodness and flavour. They can be eaten raw, like poppy or dill. They can be ground like coriander or celery seeds, or they can be cooked whole. Here are the first of my harvest of delicate pale green runner bean seeds or flageolet, as the French call them. At this fresh stage they require about ten/fifteen minutes in boiling water. Once dried, they will need about twenty or thirty minutes to soften. Thrown into a casserole, at any stage of their drying, they are fabulous. Home gardeners don’t often grow protein crops. Legume seeds are one of the few crops that are high in protein, the stuff of life. I like to serve the flageolet with a delicate cream and parsley sauce alongside buttery mashed potatoes. Mmm, delicious and very positive!
*Quite a few friends have asked for a few wild celery seeds, so I’ve written a sheet with culinary and cultivation information, to extend the text I can scribble into one miniscule space on the seed packet. If you are interested, download the Download 01 Wild celery Apium graveolens here.
Some gardeners decide how posh you are by the number of topiary peacocks you have in your garden, others will count the water lilies on your pond, or the sheer number of different perennial grasses, arranged – ‘Oh so randomly’, but for potagistas like me, none of these measures can apply.
In the old days perhaps, it was size that mattered. But today I think one of the quintessential veg tests is in climbing vegetables. So for those of you who aspire to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I thought a quick round-up of what has gone well this season, on the trellises, would be of interest.
The most important lesson I’ve learned this dry autumn is just how much vegetables need watering in a garden like mine. I’ve been watering by hand all summer, and I’ve noticed the improvements over the automatic system. I went away for a fortnight, which unfortunately coincided with the driest September on record, and by the time I came back, several of the climbers looked decidedly poorly. An automatic system is not a substitute for regular hand watering.
However, despite these setbacks, there are still some lovely things in the garden. All these climbers were planted as seeds in small pots in the greenhouse on 1st June 2014 and then planted out about a month later.
Over the years I’ve experimented with many types of courgette that have been described as vigorous, or suitable for trellises. Never have I had such success as this year, when I planted Tromboncino d’Albegna (Chiltern Seeds).
Those of you who read this blog will already know that the Tromboncini are not true courgettes, they are in fact a species of summer squash. They have tendrils, and they grow long and tall, not short and stumpy, like most courgettes. In seed catalogues they are often offered as a novelty, with the prospect of using the trombones as edibles presented as a rather apologetic final comment. I picked most of mine when they were ordinary courgette size, about 20-30cm long. They are generally thin and long with a bulbous end. Sliced and fried in butter they make an excellent meal. I left one until it was over 40cm long, it looked impressive on the vine, and I was concerned that the skin would have thickened and all taste vanished. I was wrong. It cooked up just as deliciously as the smaller ones.
The added bonus is that it flowers profusely; producing many male flowers, allowing me to cut some off and deep fry them in batter. A real summer treat.
As summer has progressed one plant in particular has gone crazy, mounting the trellis and then climbing (in a northerly direction (!)) along a horizontal. While the base of the plants don’t get so much sunshine at this time of year, the top of the trellis still benefits from this lovely sunny weather we are getting. The plant needs regular tying-in and I’ve cut off the lower leaves, which do tend to die off as the plant reaches for the sky. I‘ve fed that bed sparsely. Once at the height of the summer with tomato feed and once or twice with a seaweed or nettle pick-me-up. But I have made a point of watering profusely, even when it rained. I also did a lot of preparation on the bed, digging in raw kitchen waste in the early spring and piling on compost before I planted. A terracotta pot, sunk into the earth provides a water-sink when I water. Otherwise in such shallow beds a lot of water will run straight through the soil.
I planted three courgette against one trellis, in a space approximately 60x60cm, in a 10cm deep raised bed. I think that density of planting was probably overdoing it, only one out of the three has really taken off, though the other two have cropped, almost as well. The problem is, if I’d only planted one, would it have provided three times the amount of fruit? Next year I might try two.
Climbing courgette (or squash) seem to be very happy to share space with the Ipomea, morning glory. These love my garden and I get a fantastic crop of seeds every autumn. They start off rather fragile, but eventually they take off providing new flowers every day from late June to the first frosts. Today (early October) the flowering seems to have come to a crescendo as the morning glory has also reached the tops of the trellises and filled out, providing many lovely flowers each day.
Being a straggly plant, with few nutritional requirements, morning glory seems to take few resources from the vegetables. In fact I’m beginning to think that it’s a better companion than sweet peas. This year the sweet peas have not flowered so profusely. That may be something to do with our fantastic warm summer (they like water). The later crop of sweet peas that I planted seems happier, though I have yet to get any really good flowers from it. I religiously pick the flowers once a week, so please don’t accuse me of letting then run to seed. In my rooftopplot, sweet peas are prone to aphid attack. The critters love to feed off the flower blooms. I’ve taken a more laisser-faire attitude to aphids this year. The result is more ladybirds and more hoverflies. But there is no doubt about it, the sweet peas have been disappointing.
Companion planting or social climbing as you might call it, works best when there is some symbiosis between the plants. For courgette and Ipomea the gain for the courgette flowers is more visitors from pollinators, that are attracted to the nectar rich bright morning glories. And the Ipomea benefit from very rich soil and the prolific watering that I lavish onto the courgette.
The runner beans have again been humungous this year, coving the whole back fence and climbing into the trellises with gusto. I grew the white version, Desiree this year, ( Chiltern seeds) They have passed all the taste tests with flying colours. It cropped well and the pods remained tender, even as they grew long. I shall be using the late season beans for their seeds and not the bean pods. Desiree have white flowers, and lovely soft green kidney- shaped seeds which the French call flageolet.
I’ve waxed lyrical about the French beans Cosse Violette all summer. They grew strongly; they flowered profusely. The beans sit on the vine quite happily and even the ones I miss first time around, seem never to go stringy. They are still flowing and still cropping. And possibly the most important thing – they still taste delicious. The purple sweet peas that I planted along-side these two types of beans did not do well. But I hardly missed the companion flowers because both Desiree runner beans and Cosse Violette have such lovely flowers themselves. The Cosse are still flowering, regardless of the autumnal die back of some of the older leaves.
My new climbing plant this year is a grapevine. I took a few cuttings in April in France, when high winds knocked down a young branch of the grapevine at La Célibetaire , a Landmark Trust cottage in the grounds of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s country estate, Moulin de la Tuilerie at Gif-sur-Yvette.
The established vines, that cover the east front of the mill hall, may well have been one of those original planted by the celebrated garden designer Russell Page, whom the Windsors commissioned to design their garden. His designs would seem dated now, infused with thirties romanticism. He was mad for crazy paving, roses round the door, moss covered sundials, stone birdbaths, artificial streamlets and old fashioned herbaceous borders. In some ways his work originates from Gertrude Jekyll, in others it is the backdrop for Cecil Beaton photographs. But he knew his plants. The vine that I had taken a cutting from, if it was a survivor, was a sturdy beast. Now six months later, one of the three cuttings I have taken has survived. I’ve potted it into a ten inch pot and the stem is now over five foot tall. It has been in the greenhouse all summer. But grapes benefit from a cool season. In late August I brought it outside. Since then it has bounded away. Before the winter sets in I will re-pot it into a larger pot. That will protect it if we get a hard frost. (Small pots don’t provide much natural insulation.) It is also almost at the height to be pinched out, allowing two laterals to form. Grapevines like shelter, sun and good drainage. I’m planning to place it in one of the most favoured spots in the garden, a south-west facing corner, against the brick wall and forming one side of my arbour.
The pruning regime for vines is very similar to that for the wisteria that flourishes on the other side of the arbour. Wisteria only flower on old wood. It takes several years to establish them before they flower profusely. Similarly the advice for a grapevine is to establish a strong woody framework, either with one lateral, or two, either sprouting high up, or lower down. Then I will gradually tend the vine into cropping. For the first two years it should not be allowed to fruit. For the next few years bunches will be limited to a handful. Even once established, over prolific bunches need to be thinned out, so that each grape has room to mature.
Of course I have only a hunch what type of grape I am growing. Is it purely decorative? (I hope not). Is it red or white? Will I get good autumn colour? Will it crop at all? Is it a desert grape or a wine grape? We shall see. But if I want to keep up with the Jones’es, surely my ability at social climbing will increase if I can boast, ‘ This grape-vine came from a cutting in the Windsor’s garden’.
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.
Distinguished; respected; eminent; venerable. What a word is august? But its reputation as a month, for being the height of summer is not really so well deserved. In Britain, August Bank Holiday is associated with sultry days, picnics destroyed by squalls, children sheltering from rain under beach umbrellas and not a ray of sunshine.
This year we’ve had a noticeable decline in temperatures. Sometimes the mornings have been clear and warm, then by lunchtime clouds waft in. But in spite of these showers, I’ve needed to keep watering. This rain doesn’t soak in, instead it sizzles on the hot decking and evaporates up into the clouds again, ready to pour down on some other unsuspecting souls.
The heat of the city, billowing upwards, creates huge thunder clouds. Another August Bank Holiday nightmare. It seems that this year we’ve been affected by something called the Spanish Flume. Hot air from the centre of Spain is wafted northwards into a kink in the jet stream, where it sucks up water from the land and creates huge thunderous storms. I’ve been transfixed by a new website called www.lightningmaps.org At any time of the day or night this map shows thunderclaps across Europe in real time. (Sorry I don’t know if there is a similar site in the US) As I watch the screen right now, a storm is raging from Ixworth to Stoke Ash in Suffolk. Every time I see a flash, it means the satellite has detected a lightning bolt. There is something strangely compelling about this website. I get feelings I can only interpret as shadenfreude, when I see that other people are having the storms and not us.
August is derived from the Latin word, augere, meaning to increase. As it happens, this month does welcome in the period of plenty, the harvest. In the garden at the moment I’m cropping French beans and runner beans, cucumber, three different types of tomatoes, as well as lettuces, courgette, peppers and all the herbs. At this time of year the humidity swells fruits in no time. The courgette goes from three inches long, to twelve overnight. The runner beans are now really motoring, getting longer so quickly. If I close my eyes I can almost hear them growing. The cucumbers augere themselves so fast, I have to mark them with ribbons. Im scared that if I miss one they will burst!
The verb augere, augment also lent itself to a name. Augustus, Gus, Auguste, all come from this root. The first person to name himself Augustus, was Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the first Emperor of Rome. He knew that names mean everything, changing his name several times over his rise to leadership, until the title Imperator Augustus was coined by the Senate in 27BC. By calling himself a word that meant, exalted, highly regarded, well thought of, it was surely only a matter of time that Augustus would reach that pinnacle.
In the garden the climbers have now all reached the top of their trellises, as if knowing that this month of August is their last chance. The beans are cascading beautifully, dotted here and there with orange nasturtiums, or purple morning glory. These flowers are the bulls-eye for roaming bees and pollinators.
The courgette is not so effusive, but by gentle training, and the auspicious use of twine, it too has reached the top of the trellis. We all know that moments of glory do not last long. September is so near now. Do the plants feel that extra chill in the air at night? Is that why they all put on a spurt? Or do they detect the shortening day-length?
The month of August is named after the Emperor Augustus, just as July was named after Julius Caesar. The senate decreed it. But there was a problem, the month of August traditionally had only 30 days. So the Senate, not wishing to short change Augustus, extended the month of August by one day, thereby introducing a complexity into our calendar that still endures. To balance all this, the Romans summarily cropped one day from February, giving it a paltry 28 days, and gave that extra day to August. To this day in our calender July and August both have 31 days. It wouldn’t do for Julius Caesar to have a longer month that Augustus.
I’m rather pleased that August is long and February is short. I’m happy that August can endure for just 24 hours longer than it might have.
Augustus reigned as Emperor for over forty years. His reign was esteemed and celebrated. Under Augustan rule the Roman citizen enjoyed a period of peace and plenty, referred to as the Pax Romana. In my deckchair, I shall also hope to enjoy the Pax Londinium this Bank Holiday weekend in the rooftopvegplot. And next week, I shall particularly relish that extra day of August, as the 30th ticks into the 31st.
Just like Augustus, who was intent on a long and fruitful reign over his kingdom, I hope to enjoy the last of the summer days fruitfully, in my empire - the garden.