We would not describe ourselves as vegetable gardeners, at least not yet, but since we completed a project to build raised beds in our London garden almost a year ago we have been experimenting with growing our own. Setting up a vegetable garden in June or July would not be described as best practice. Nevertheless in our first season we did well with tomatoes, Venetian beans, lettuce, oriental leaves and most commonly cultivated herbs. I was especially chuffed with the profusion of French tarragon, my favourite herb, which added incredible flavour to boiled potatoes, chicken and egg dishes. Despite Him Indoors accidentally yanking the plants out when I wasn’t looking in the autumn, fragments of root have quickly sent up new shoots and we are back in production again.
Tomatoes were super successful, just four plants trained against a brick wall providing all we needed for salads, cooking and chutney making. They were a little late, but not dramatically so. This year we have made room for eight plants of 4 different varieties (F1 ‘Elegance’, F1 ‘Giulietta’, ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Orange Paruche’), which means we should have plenty to give away later in the year.
It has not all been plain sailing. I thought courgettes would revel in the mounds of manure we incorporated into the soil, but the embryonic fruits kept rotting at the tips and no more than two or three found their way into the kitchen. Sweet corn was an unmitigated disaster, planted way too late and proving a complete waste of time and space. Broadbeans, planted by Him Indoors last autumn, have produced a modest crop this month, but to satisfy us for more than two or three meals we’d need to oust everything else. I like broadbeans, but not that much. The jury is out on leeks, which appear rather slow to do anything at all. If they don’t show promise soon they’ll be pulled out in favour of something I can’t readily buy at Waitrose.
And there’s the rub. If you are seriously restricted space-wise what is the point in growing fruit and veg that are easily bought in the shops? Yes, you know where they’ve been, but where’s the satisfaction? Instead of going down the obvious route we are experimenting with things we don’t find at the greengrocer – colourful tomato varieties, outdoor cucumbers, red-veined sorrel, purple French beans and asparagus peas. Of the regular stuff only gem lettuce, salad leaves and rocket remain, good crops for squeezing in between slower foods.
Where pests and diseases are concerned, so far, so good. Naturally we have slugs and snails (who doesn’t?) but other afflictions have been minimal. I tend to think this may be because none of our neighbours grow vegetables and therefore blights, root flies and mildews are taking longer to find our tender harvest. Crop rotation in a single bed of about 7m sq with a distinct sunny and shady side will be nigh on impossible. Next year I will move the tomatoes to the back of the bed, but any further and they’ll be next door amongst the buddleia.
I toyed with planting step-over apple trees against the mellow brick walls. I have not entirely abandoned this idea, but am discovering that seedlings at the end of a row nearest the wall develop twice as fast. I am guessing this is down to the warmth and shelter the wall provides. Now that I have a mini greenhouse I need to get very much better at growing on a few plants in modules so that no space is ever wasted.
I have not been able to resist slipping in a few flowering plants, but the confines of our raised beds dictate they must be of the most upright, space-saving kind. Last year it was cosmos (too bushy according to Him Indoors) and this year I’ve planted lime green and burgundy gladioli. A vegetable garden without blooms is a worthy one, but not pretty enough when it’s the only thing you can see from the kitchen window. Our little vegetable garden may not be Villandry (click here for a superb post on that iconic garden at Jardin Design), but it might make kitchen gardeners of us yet.