We moved to the Yorkshire Wolds from Wakefied West Yorkshire, the epicentre of the famous rhubarb triangle. The conditions in that region are said to be perfect for the cultivation of rhubarb but all I can say to that is rhubarb. We brought a rhubarb plant to Dale farm from our allotment in Walton and to say it is flourishing is really an understatement. It overwhelmed the kitchen garden (as we now poshly call our allotment) to such an extent that Paul pulled it up and chucked it roughly behind the compost heap where it has taken root again and continues to threaten the existence of several native species.
But, location does matter when it comes to veg growing. It is about 4 degrees cooler here than at our previous home and consequently the growing season is about 2 weeks shorter. Don’t return from your Tuscan holiday with ideas of drying tomatoes and Borlotti beans in the sun – it just isn’t going to happen in Northern England. Do have a go with some things though; we are still amazed that we can spend summers picking and eating warm figs from the abundant tree in the corner of our fruit cage.
After a few years of experience now, Paul’s top tips for growing fruit and veg are:
- You get out what you put in – if you don’t weed, fertilise, prune and trim it will show in the measliness of your crop. Our allotment neighbour in Walton was a chap called Marcel who took a French approach to gardening – threw a few seeds in amongst the weeds – and it showed to much disapproval.
- Know (and stalk) your enemy; when your crop reaches perfection the pests will think so too and may get there first unless you are vigilant. Ideally a kitchen garden should be next to the kitchen so you can keep a close eye. We don’t use chemicals except for slug pellets but parasites (crawling, slithering, flying or the ones that just blow in accidentally)| can break through almost every defence. This doesn’t mean you should give up. Another neighbour at Walton, Roger, had a perfect allotment, a real joy. He didn’t use a single chemical but he did have solution to all pests – he sprayed his cabbages with garlic water so the cabbage whites wouldn’t lay their eggs on them, planted his carrots a foot off the ground so that the carrot flies couldn’t reach them, planted marigolds next to etc etc…and it worked.
- The point of an allotment is to maximise your crop from the smallest area. Don’t use up space for major crops such as potatoes and onions and Paul just sows 1 row of peas and 1 of carrots for the look of them really as we get all we need from local farms. Also cabbages taste just as good from the supermarket
- Old varieties are old varieties for a reason – very pretty but either hard to grow, small or taste rubbish – modern varieties are interbred for a reason. This is based on research carried out a few years ago when we came back from RHS Wisley with dozens of packs of old varieties – never again.
- If you try a new crop and it is a disaster it may be ok the next year – try it 2 or 3 times and you might get the hang of it or conditions might change.
- People talk about spacing potatoes and chitting, planting after first frost etc but whether you follow the advice or just chuck them in and hope for the best the results seem to be the same – most modern varieties will succeed if they get sun and water.
- Spread what you grow so that your crop is constant – the July glut is a pain in the arse and courgettes can get a tiny bit boring when you are boiling up your 10th pot of ratatouille. Winter is for pickling, curing and jamming and you should get enough to last all year if you don’t mind scraping off a bit off mould now and again.
- Only grow 2 pumpkins – 1 for hallowe’en and one for a big pot of soup. Paul thinks pumpkin pie is like treacle tart with none of the pleasure.
The main thing is that you have to enjoy it because it is hard work and time consuming (both the growing and the prepping) and you won’t save money until well established. I have often spent a good hour picking kale (Cavalo Nero to you youngsters), removing slugs, cutting out stems, washing repeatedly and so on to gaze jealously at a huge bag of perfect kale being sold for a pound in Morrisons. (Although this does beg the question – what are farmers putting on their kale to get it to look like that?)
But sometimes when I am up there gathering (eating) raspberries in the warm evening sun with bees buzzing and the scent of old roses drifting over I think it is close to heaven. When my Mum was ill I think there was no place she felt happier than in our veg patch.
So these are Paul’s favourite things:
- Forking through the black earth to see the creamy white new potatoes pop out (By God, the old man could handle a spade). Serve at room temperature with salted butter
- Sprouting broccoli – a delicious vegetable in any case but also generally the first crop of the season after a long winter of deprivation.
- Just being able to pick things at their actual peak and even eat raw there and then – no better flavour. Sweetcorn is a good example of this and so many veg lose their sugars so quickly. You realise that vegetables you had always thought bland are actually bursting with flavour when you grow your own. Think of the first tomatoes after a winter of supermarket toms. Some things actually taste totally different e.g. allotment grown celery, tomatoes and cucumber bear no resemblance to supermarket bought
Mainly it is just the general joy of creation and pride at seeing things come through and flourish also the reaction of other people on witnessing a beautiful and thriving kitchen garden.