Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Untidy but productive veg gardens

At last - professional endorsement for my messy gardening style! Thank you Lia Leendertz in the latest issue of the Garden (the Royal Horticultural Society mag), and thanks to Helen for the mag (as I'm not actually a member).
Purple sprouting broccoli and a muddle of other vegetation

"Every year", says Lia "we clear the ground and start all over again from scratch... We just think it's what we have to do to produce edible crops". Lia explains that this is a hangover from agricultural practices, and unnecessarily high-maintenance for our allotments and vegetable beds. Hooray! Lia's moving to more perennials - fruit bushes, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, sorrel and vines.
She's right - especially on heavy clay soils with a lot of slugs waiting in the wings - where it's very hard to get new plants established in spring. The soils takes a long time to warm up and it's not that easy for the roots of young plants to penetrate it (apart from young dandelions which have no trouble). That's another approach of course - advocated by Alys Fowler - eat those weeds - dandelions, ground elder and hedge garlic - all of which grow in my garden, and can be foraged as Alys explains
Take spinach or chard for example. I left a row of chard from last year - it didn't do anything over the winter, and looked pretty manky, but in March it started to grow again (it was warm then, remember?) And I've had several great bunches of leaves from it already. Meanwhile chard seedlings which I planted out last October in another patch were all eaten by slugs and snails in February, and so were their replacements, and so were the ones I tried growing from seed directly in the patch. It is really hard to get started, but once it's established it's good to keep it going as long as possible
Chard in late September
Frosty chard in February

Last year's chard plants now in May

Another family of veg plants which can go on and on are brassicas (you know - cabbages, kale, sprouts and broccoli). Don't be too keen to pull them up - they will often do something unexpected and produce more growth - leaves or side shoots. Sprouts for example (thanks to Alison for the plants last spring) produce really delicious leaves at the top (sprout tops) and sprouts, but will then make side shoots and tender leaves.
Sprout plant with leaves ready for cutting
Cooked sprout tops 

Sprout plant growing new side shoots

Even just a bare brassica stem will grow more young leaves, especially if you make a cross shaped cut in the top of the stem (my exceptionally frugal Yorkshire grandad told me this). These venerable broccolis and kales can withstand quite a bit of slug attack too as it would take a beaver to chew through their main stem - you'll just get holes in the leaves. The big, tough lower leaves are useful too - if you surround young plants with a barrier of them slugs may stop there rather than eating your young beans or courgettes. Again, it looks messy, but it works!
Picked today - chard, parsley, landcress, mizuna

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