Season’s affected disorder
Our gardening expert rakes over the highs and lows of the recent contrary weather conditions
On the allotment, summer finally arrived on 20 August, a proper summer with masses to eat and loads to give away. But it has been a miserable and depressing time getting here. My notebook records a long, cold winter, and then a freakishly warm spell towards the end of March, ‘a heavenly time’ I wrote with doomed optimism on the 24th, rejoicing in the buzz of bees and bumblebees. There was a magnificent crop of purple sprouting broccoli, and lettuce and salad leaves thriving under cloches.
A few weeks later we were plunged into a horrendous drought and a hosepipe ban was in place. A long, sullen cold patch followed, stretching interminably from April through to June. On 14 June I wrote that slugs and snails were everywhere, that nothing was germinating, or if it did, the weedy seedlings – of spinach, for example, and Swiss chard – were bolting before yielding anything to eat. The ‘Mara des Bois’ strawberries flowered valiantly, but the fruit rotted on their protective beds of straw owing to the remorseless damp.
The rain poured down and still nothing germinated except the weeds. There was no food to speak of, and the ‘hungry gap’ looked set to last all summer. I drove sadly in the rain to the allotment most days to water ailing seedlings in the greenhouse.
And then, a sudden burst of good weather prompted me to write in my notebook on 31 July: ‘For the first time this year the allotment looks good, gleaming with health, notwithstanding the endless parade of slugs and snails, glistening with raindrops after prolonged rain last night.’ I went on to record that the French beans were in flower and that there were still mangetouts and a few plump pods of peas. That was the day too I picked the first courgette, a healthy small ‘Rond de Nice’ (I ignored the slug bite at one end). Small fruits were forming on the dependable ‘Bambino’ and the usually prolific summer squash ‘Zephyr F1’, which I love for its curving yellow fruit with pale green bands at each end. There were a few raspberries and the strawberries were once more in flower.
Two days before, on 29 July, a warm and sunny day, I went in for an orgy of sowing: all the oriental salad leaves, the mustards, mizunas and pak choi. These are the crops that are feeding us now, that I beg the daughters to share and pick. The success stories of this grand day of sowing are salad rocket (which I much prefer in a mixed salad to the pungent wild variety), the feathery oriental mustard ‘Golden Streaks’, the wide leaves of mizuna ‘Red Knight F1’ as well as the green form, and the finely dissected leaves of mustard ‘Golden Streaks’. Also thriving, from an early June sowing, is the summer purslane that goes perfectly with the classic Italian salad of tomatoes and mozzarella.
The greatest glory of the allotment, after a halting start, is undoubtedly the French beans. I always grow ‘Orinoco’, a pale yellow wax bean with shortish (5in) pods; it has the most delicate flavour and cooks in a trice. ‘Purple Tepee’ is another good dwarf bush variety, and ‘Cosse Violette’ my favourite climber, a heartening sight on a wigwam of bamboo canes or hazel sticks. The purple beans turn dark green when plunged into boiling water. ‘Cosse Violette’s’ is the best tasting of all, delicious warm with a vinaigrette dressing, or cold in a salade niçoise.
When the beans get older and tougher I stew them in the Greek style, softening first some garlic and onion in a saucepan with a good slug of olive oil. Put the beans on top and then a layer of peeled and chopped tomatoes; season well. Cover and cook gently for about half an hour.
In the greenhouse, the cucumbers have succumbed, as they always do, to powdery mildew, but the tomatoes are magnificent: the red ribbed fruit of ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, the yellow and green striped ‘Green Zebra’, the tiny cherry plums of the graceful ‘Rosada F1’ and the dark and delicious ‘Black Krim’. A late but bountiful harvest.
All seeds from Simpson’s Seeds: www.simpsonsseeds.co.uk
Contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cottage Garden
Hollyhocks and cabbages, roses and runner beans – we all have an image of that emblem of England, the cottage garden. Garden historian Twigs Way has written a wonderful slim guide, in the excellent Shire Library series, about the evolution of the cottage garden from the small piece of land attached to the medieval farm labourer’s cottage to the modern versions that are more about style than thrifty necessity.
In the Middle Ages, the cottage garden was about productivity in the face of poverty, involving the growing of herbs, medicinal plants and masses of vegetables – onions, leeks, skirrets and coleworts, a loose-leaved cabbage.
Later, the village show attempted to halt moral decline. Many a man, writes Twigs Way, was kept from the alehouse by the challenge of growing six matching beans.
Cottage gardens became more genteel as poets and artists pursued the romantic idyll. Jane Austen wrote about the fashion for cottage living and her own family grew vegetables, her mother donning a gardening smock for the task of digging up potatoes. Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish and Vita Sackville-West were all devotees of cottage garden plants, as are many gardeners today.
The beautifully illustrated The Cottage Garden would make a perfect small present. £6.99: www.shirebooks.co.uk
Plant of the week
Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ is a tough and longflowering white coneflower. Good in a mixed border or in drifts among grasses. Attractive to bees and butterflies and birds love the seedheads. £6.99: www.crocus.co.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938