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It’s the middle of August and despite the weather being a little less than predictable, the vegetable garden is doing pretty well - it feels like an established garden all of a sudden. It’s our second full year of growing and it’s actually having a really positive effect on how we live. Not only is it saving us quite a lot of money each month, (we have so much produce coming out the garden at the moment), it also improves our quality of life, our general health and wellbeing. This might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. Harvesting ingredients you’ve grown yourself is an incredibly holistic experience and everything always tastes so much better than anything you could buy. Also, spending an hour or so in the garden, whether I’m sowing seeds, watering the plants, weeding the beds or pinching out side shoots on the tomato plants, helps me slow down and reconnect with nature. In that moment I feel calmer and less distracted by everything else that’s going on. It’s a restorative peaceful place to be and I’m so pleased we decided to turn this section of lawn over to growing food.
There have been some marked successes in the veg garden, alongside the occasional inevitable disappointment. Some plants are doing much better than they did last year and some have left me puzzled, because for one reason or another they’ve struggled. Take my broad beans as a case in point. Last year I had several attempts at growing this wonderful vegetable. I brought seedlings on in the greenhouse and planted these out in late spring. They seemed healthy and strong, but never took off. Was it the soil? I picked up some different varieties from the garden centre to see if they would do better, but just like the beans before, they failed too. This year I sowed seeds in trays in the greenhouse at the end of November. They weathered out the harshest of the winter inside the Rhino, and then I planted them out in February. They grew fantastically and provided us with our first ever broad bean harvest, which was extremely exciting, because they are a favourite of ours. It wasn’t the soil after all, so I’ll be sowing more broad beans like this later on in the winter. I don’t know why planting them out earlier has resulted in healthier plants, it’s an intriguing mystery.
This year I decided to train the cucumbers round strings that run up the sides of the greenhouse, instead of letting them creep their way around the floor, twirling around and about everything in their way. I didn’t mind the slightly hectic snarl of leaves and stalks, but the cucumbers ended up growing on the floor, which wasn’t ideal. Now the vines have tracked their way up the strings and across the roof space of the greenhouse. I have cucumbers now hanging here and there, like heavy green pendulums. It actually seems to keep the fruit straighter and the air can move about them, so they seem brighter and healthier. We’ve had so many I’ve had to give lots away. Everyone says how delicious they are. I’ve been pickling them with cider vinegar and coriander seed. Frying them with garlic and black pepper and grating them into cool, minty raitas. These cucumbers are completely different to shop bought cucumbers. In fact they taste like melon with a crisp, juicy texture. They make the most amazingly refreshing sorbet, believe it or not.
There’s noting quite like growing your own tomatoes, it’s one of the main reasons I have a greenhouse, and right now they’re ripening up nicely, so every few days we are able to pick a colander full of beautiful red fruit. I think proper sun ripened tomatoes, eaten in season embody what simple, good food really is. When it comes to eating tomatoes, I tend to treat them pretty simply. In many cases I’ll serve them straight up, bar some good olive oil and some flaky salt. We eat them with warm crusty bread, basil and burrata but I also love them with crab and aioli or with lightly cured fish. Fresh tomatoes with lovage (an unusual but delicious garden herb) are incredible, or with lots of chopped mint and capers, or fresh cheese and dill. Occasionally I’ll make a sauce or a soup with the really ripe ones. Both are made by roasting the tomatoes with garlic, thyme, salt, pepper and olive oil, and then passing the soft, blistered fruit through a sieve. The resulting puree or passata is incredible, and makes the most refreshing chilled soup. For a rich sauce, I let it bubble away on the stove for a little longer.
The Globe artichoke plants I put in the ground in the early spring have now produced two fist-sized flowers which were duly cut, boiled and devoured. Each leaf was dipped in warm melted butter and satisfyingly scrapped free of flesh with our teeth. The hearts themselves were sublime, delicate and substantial. I’ve eaten lots of artichokes in my life but these were the best I’ve had. They were just so fresh, which makes all the difference when it comes to flavour. Artichokes are a perennial, so they’ll be back next year. It’s a bit of a wait, but that’s what makes gardening and seasonal cookery so exciting.
This summer’s other garden related accomplishment comes in the form of compost. Homemade compost to be precise. I have my first full bay of rich dark compost to use in the garden. I turned it all about a month ago which helped it along the way. All in all, it’s taken 18 months to get to a stage where it’s ready to fork over the soil. It’s strange to get excited about rotting stuff but as a gardener, making compost is magical. You’re basically turning food scraps and garden waste into a nutrient rich, life giving growing medium. The whole process is an integral part of the whole cycle and another fascinating aspect of gardening.
Author: Gill Meller
Images: Matt Austin