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On a Chalk Hillside February 2020

Reviewing our Vegetable year

(Note: Although this article does not feature hardy herbaceous perennials, it will be of interest to many of our members. The web team)​

I don’t know about you, but in January as I write this article, I have been reviewing our gardening year, and looking back over achievements, successes, failures, and what needs to be done this year.  In particular, I review our fruit and vegetable production, look at what worked well, what our harvest was like, how well I utilised the harvest and stored it for our year, what needs to be tweaked in the way we operate, what to grow this year and therefore what seeds I need to order, and to draw up the bed rotation plan for 2020.  This post is going to cover some of these things in relation to our vegetable production, so if you are a hardy plant purist and only want to read about hardy herbaceous perenials please stop now, and come back next month when I will be talking about winter clearing of the herbaceous perennial and shrub garden.  
As you know when we moved here we inherited an orchard of mature plum, pear and apple trees.   Here is a shot of some of the plum trees in blossom in mid-April 2015:-

It was our intention to also grow a lot of vegetables to help us eke out our income and stop us blowing our savings and for many years we only ate fruit we grew ourselves, and continue to grow and store vegetables for our whole year.  Our level of production falls somewhere between market gardener and allotmenteer, with us doing a great deal of manual labour rather than using any mechanised tools that a slightly larger scale production would warrant.  To give you an idea of the scale I am talking about for veg and soft fruit we now intensively garden over an area 72 ft by 55 ft, (22m x 16.76m) which is a reduction this year on the previous size as we have now got two additional tunnels in the area that used to be elsewhere in the garden.  Within that space we now have a 20ft x 12 ft (6.09m x 3.66m) polytunnel in which we grow tomatoes (about 85 plants of various sorts), a few chillies and peppers; we have a winter greens net tunnel of 15ft x 12ft, (1.525m x3.66m), and a raspberry fruit cage 20ft x 12ft, (6.09m x 3.66m).  We also have a Jerusalem artichoke bed which I see from my article of April 2019 when I described planting the tubers out measures 7.3m x 2m in metric! In order to accommodate the two new 20ft tunnels in the area the five vegetable beds have been resized from 20 ft x 12 ft (6.09m x 3.66m) to 12 ft x 12 ft, (3.66m x 3.66m).  I also grow tomatoes, cucumbers and chillies in my greenhouse over winter, and there is a herb bed near the house for fresh herbs for cooking.  
So what did we grow last year?  Well, as you saw in the article from April 2019 we grow a variety of Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) called ‘Fuseau’, and you might have expected that this year the harvest would have been better without the heatwave of 2018.  However, we had a drought from the time the tubers were planted out in the beginning of April until June, and they struggled.  The summer was extremely mixed weather-wise, but quite unseasonably windy in high summer, and then we had rain, a lot of rain, from the last week in September onwards all autumn.  Even our light chalky soil was saturated, lots of flooding in the Avon valley, and our artichoke crop is poor.  We plan after many years of growing artichokes to call it a day and not grow them again next year, turning the bed into a gooseberry bed instead.  (The artichokes will have other ideas, growing as they do from tiny bits of tubers left in the ground by mistake, so we will still get artichokes for several years til we root them all out!  Our leeks which are another winter standing crop (ie I leave them in the ground to harvest when required), are also not as huge as they can be, but at least have not bolted quite as fast as previous years.  I grow over 100 plants, and we dig and eat them throughout the winter.  Here they are planted out in July 19:-

And here are some of the ‘Monstrueux de Carentan’ harvested on Christmas Eve:-

You may be able to see the potato foliage at the top of the picture of the leeks planted out – this is Pink Fir Apple main crop potato, one we grow every year, each year growing fewer and fewer.  We grow a first early and a second early which is a salad type each year as well.  However the yield of each of these is absolutely tiny, and each year we say we will not grow any next year.  This year (2020) is to be that year.  No potatoes.  Not even main crop.  They take so long to develop that we have finished cropping and eating salads of tomatoes, courgettes and runner or French beans long before the maincrop potatoes are even half way through.  This will free up half of one bed for the future, which is very helpful now we have a smaller area within which to grow, and we want to grow more “leaves”.  
This for us means chard. (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens).  As we don’t grow hearting brassicas, chard fills that gap for us during the year.  In 2019 the chard has done well.  All the leaf beets are suited to drought as they develop a huge root (like beetroots!) and though the Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens ‘Red Ruby’ bolts quickly (it always does being a heritage variety), the Swiss Chard ’Lucullus’ and Swiss Chard ‘Bright lights’ have been cropping well all summer.  Here the bed is planted up at the beginning of May:-


And here is a shot across in July:-

The paler green leaves in the centre are Perpetual Spinach, (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. cicla 'Perpetual Spinach') and the darker leaves are a row of Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens (Swiss Chard) ‘Bright Lights’.  The canes you see behind are the four double rows of beans – two French climbing, two runner.  You may be able to make out on the right of the phot between the leaves and the polytunnel some Verbascum Olympicum (self-sown which we leave to attract bees) and the courgette bed.   These are the bush courgettes, 16 plants in total.  Here is shot in August showing the Courgettes we grew this year:-

The yellow round one is called ‘Yellow Globe’, the darker green one is ‘Black Beauty’ and the lighter one called ‘Jaguar’.  I have run out of the yellow globe seed, so am planning to buy a different yellow courgette seed to try this year.  I like the different skin colour to give variety in salads, though in general the texture and taste is the same.  The long curved pale green ones are a climbing courgette called ‘Tromboncino’ which we usually grow up canes spaced like runner beans, but in 2019, as I was suddenly only having rows of 12 plants instead of 20 plants a run, I wanted to utilise all the rows for runner and French beans – two runs of each, so 48 canes of runners, and 64 canes of French beans.  So whilst I did put a spare ‘Tromboncino’ through the French beans (a BIG mistake as it grew rampant with all the pelleted chicken manure and swamped the beans) the main Tromboncino crop went on tripods as you can see below:-

The unseasonable winds we had this year showed why this was a bad idea – all the weight of the crop was at the top, the tripods were not strong enough to cope with the storms and the two tripods farthest away from you snapped off at ground level.  So the lesson learned is not to put them on tripods of only 6ft canes but to get more 8ft canes and make another climbing frame double line as we do for the beans for them to grow up.   The courgettes did better this year, cropping for longer – last year in the drought they cropped fast, short and died off by the end of August, which was a big shock as we expect to get courgettes into October if the night temperatures are ok.  This year it turned cold at night early, but we struggled on with a slow crop through September.  The Tromboncino (if they don’t fall off their supports!) crop latest in the year, and we rely on them for late September fresh courgettes.   I am betting you are asking what we do with all those courgettes?  Well some are open frozen to be used to make ratatouille during the year (I have one enormous chest freezer for fruit, and another for veg).  I also cook up and freeze some courgette into curry, and make several different courgette veg side dishes to go with fish or meat to freeze.  Such as courgette cooked with fennel seeds and lemon juice; or cooked with garlic and lemon; or cooked with chinese five spice and garlic; or cooked with cumin and garam masala.  Additionally, I make a lot of pickles, and chutneys which include courgette in them, and which I hope to make enough of to last us the whole year.  It is a similar story of how I use and store produce with the runner and French beans.  Here is an example of the variety of Climbing French beans that I grew last year:-


 You can see how varied they are in size and shape.  The top two are called “Cherokee Trail of Tears” and are an American heritage bean (heritage in beans tends to mean ‘gets stringy and runs to seed quicker’ in my experience).  They have a lovely mottled colouring on their pod.  The purple one is ‘Violette’, early to crop, but not a very heavy cropper.  The very large one is from a saved seed of ‘Helga’, which is a flat French bean much bigger than general – obviously not a “true” seed any more.  The green one above it is called ‘Cobra’, and the three little ones at the bottom are ‘Blue Lake’.  Himself is NOT allowed to pick beans as he says these are “technical picking” given the different size and shape of all the produce.  Even the runners are varied, with some very long eg ‘Liberty’, and some (‘Painted Lady’) being short and fat.
Apart from eating them fresh each day in their season, I blanch and freeze some beans for vegetables during the year.  I pickle beans to be a caper substitute for the year, and add them to mixed pickles, piccalilli, make a bean curry for freezing, as well as “greek style” beans for a veg side dish.  
In other years I have grown gherkins for pickling, but have in the past two years grown mini cucumbers (‘La Diva’) in the greenhouse, and when they all crop at once and we have too many to eat they pickle with garlic and dill very nicely as a substitute for the gherkins.  I am in two minds whether to grow more than three cucumbers next year (that’s all I can fit in on my staging in the greenhouse as I grow 10 tomatoes in pots round the walls of my greenhouse as well.)  But where to put them?  I have been lucky this year as my neighbour also grew ‘La Diva’ and would bring me his glut to pickle as well.
To complete the curcubit rundown, we as usual grew 2 marrow plants (‘Long Green Bush’) on the compost bins.  Here they are in August:-

This year was better than last – we got four marrows, one from the back plant and three from the front.  They weighed 7lb+ each, and we really enjoyed them.  As usual, I would say it wouldn’t be worth the space on the ground for this level of crop, but on the compost bin as the compost rots down its not too bad.  Though I think we have to come to terms with the fact that the new position of this run of compost bins is too shady for the best curcubit growing, and consider whether we could/should try doing this on one of the compost bins in the veg garden.  
Tomatoes:-
Here planted up in the polytunnel with the tagetes to deter white fly in July:-

Here a selection of the crop in September:-

I am going to talk in more length about tomatoes later in the year, so suffice it to say here, as you can see we grow beef, plum, cherry as well as medium size fruit in several different colours.  The harvest this year was ok, the flavour wasn’t as good as from the heatwave the year before as we didn’t have as much sun, but the crop didn’t stop as early as the year before, though it did seem to tail off abruptly earlier than I expected in September – we expect to crop well into October in a polytunnel.  I open freeze cherry tomatoes for my husband to add to our cooked breakfast on a Sunday during the year, but in the main we eat all our tomatoes fresh.  I do cook up a tomato sauce to freeze if we have a glut all at once, but this year unlike last year our ‘plum roma’ and ‘principe borghesi’ did not glut or produce the volume of fruit they did in the heatwave year of 2018, so I did not have to bottle any this year.  I use some fruit in chutney making, but find if you have patience all picked fruit will ripen eventually, so tend not to need to make green tomato chutney.  However, our learning point for this year was that the tumbling tomatoes in the ordinary hanging baskets did not earn their keep, so it is not worth doing them just because I had the extra plants and the extra baskets – stick to the plan and just use the big baskets with the built in water sump which help to keep the plants fed and hydrated.  
The last area of veg to review is another winter standing crop – the kales and sprouting broccoli.  Here is a picture of the tunnel mid-hoe in July:-

(FYI I use the hoe on the right, ideal for me a left-hander).  Hopefully this shot shows that we grow dwarf curly kale, (a Borecole, Brassica oleracea (Acephala Group) ‘Dwarf Green Curled’; dwarf red curly kale (another Borecole, Brassica oleracea (Acephala Group) ‘Curly Scarlet); Black Tuscan Kale – also a Borecole, Cavolo Nero ‘Nero de Toscana’; and kale Red Russian, (Brassica oleracea var. sabellica); all grown in blocks 30cm in all directions apart round the tunnel.  In a horseshoe in the middle we grow four or five sprouting broccoli plants – I was finishing up a packet of Brassica oleracea (Italica Group) ‘Red Arrow’ this year, but as they don’t get harvested til March or April I can’t tell you about this year’s crop – as usual they don’t grow very high, even with pelleted chicken manure and all the saturating rain we have had this autumn and winter.   I grow more than 100 kale plants, and we crop them from September onwards in a cut and come again way (ie a leaf here, a leaf there through the whole winter rather than a whole plant at a time.)  This makes for small, productive plants which gradually get quite leggy as you can see here from last March:-

(And yes, I need to get the hoe out again!)
I would say that there really isn’t any productive point growing the red curly kale.  They seem to grow slightly less strongly, and they do cook up green, so whilst I am always on the lookout for the ’Red Russian’ seeds as it’s a flat-leafed kale, and very beautiful as well as different tasting, I won’t be going out of my way to buy red dwarf kale seeds in the future.  We are very keen on the cavolo nero though, so will be upping the number of these grown this year.  
Next time, as mentioned above, winter clearing of the herbaceous perennial and shrub garden.

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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