Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Planning a summer of (homegrown) love

Last year's harvest highlights

I have been mulling something over for a while, regarding this blog, and it's now time to announce my conclusion: I am broadening its scope beyond buying and cooking to growing too. I have been growing vegetables for years, on and off, but it was summer 2009 that I really got stuck into it. This year I have gone up another gear, and it's my intention to become self-sufficient in a number of vegetables, despite having a tiny urban garden.

It's an exciting, frustrating, educational experience, and I think this is an appropriate place to share what I learn, and to post some nice pictures. Eventually, I'll be able to post recipes and pictures of the end point of all this work: home grown meals!

The last couple of weeks have been a busy time, with sowing seeds and preparing (garden) beds. I've embraced eBay as a source of unusual vegetable and flower seeds (and to a lesser extent, plants). Last summer I bought one or two things, including a couple of ornamental banana plants that are growing so rapidly, the changes are apparent from one day to the next. However, over the winter, I have made wish lists (standard for me), and then found the best-value trusted sellers. When the appropriate sowing time came along, I ordered them, and without exception, I have had good results.

My trip to Iceland feel at a slightly awkward time, as I would have preferred to have sown the Solanaceae (tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and the like) in mid-February. However, since I got back I've made up for the lost time, and by all accounts it doesn't make all that much difference - the later you sow, say tomatoes, the quicker they grow. And at this latitude, it's not recommended too early anyway, unless you have a heated greenhouse (which I don't).

Two years ago I sowed a range of heirloom (heritage) tomatoes, and had mixed results. To be fair, it was my first time, and I'm not the most disciplined of gardeners (I tend to go through bursts of activity, followed by weeks of indolence). However, I still had a glut of tiny yellow cherry tomatoes, and a few other assorted fruits.

Last year, I ordered about half a dozen types, almost all new to me, and proceeded to get waylaid by other things (namely, the death of my grandmother, and its consequences, which fell right in the middle of the sowing season). I bought several plants, and was given a lot more by my uncle's wife, so it worked out fine - especially as these were supplemented by a huge number of self-sown yellow cherries from the year before, which grew happily in the cracks of my terrace. I was more careful about feeding and watering, staking and pruning, and I got several kilos of fruit, this time split mostly between red cherries and huge ribbed red 'Super Marmande'.

I also grew peas, rocket, radishes, a huge range of herbs, a great deal of soft fruit (mostly strawberries and raspberries), turnips, courgettes, and probably other things I've forgotten.

I learnt a lot, as every gardener does every year, and given I knew I'd be living here for at least another year (probably longer), I started making bigger plans once the season was over.

This time, the intention is to make the most of every scrap of ground. Actually, a good half of the outdoor space around my home is concrete or paved, and the back garden occupies a slope - so not the best of plots. However, the front is south facing, with sunshine all day long (when it shines), and the slope in the back also faces south, and is sheltered by fences and walls on all sides. I have built a terrace at the top, and last year regularly recorded temperatures 10 degrees higher than ambient - allowing my to grow my tomatoes outdoors, and for Mediterranean plants like olive, grape vines, and oleanders to thrive there.

I have brought the front garden back into cultivation this year, it having gone from cottage flower patch to overgrown couch grass meadow since I last did much there. I will keep large perennials, like roses (which I love), but the rest will be stripped and planted with beans, peas, shallots, leaves and root crops. The slope in the back is half covered with soft fruit, which I'll leave another year, but the rest will be packed with sun-lovers, like summer squash. I built a greenhouse at the end of last summer, and another will squeeze on the other side, giving me somewhere to put tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and a melon or two. At the top, to begin with, more legumes and lots of herbs, and later I will see what I need to make space for. At the bottom, in an awkward shady space, I will put those crops that like shade, and those which tend to bolt in hot weather - so later peas, salads, and some herbs.

I'll post a full list of varieties once I've drawn it up - in all, in a space of around 60 square metres, I expect to be growing a good hundred crops. It sounds impossible, but it's really more a matter of watering, feeding, and making the most of containers. It can be done, as you'll see.

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