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’.