Taking stock of the polyculture

borage bees beans Aug 17

What’s working?

Lambs lettuce is starting to show up all over the place.  This happy self-seeder creates splashes of lime-green colour and soft mild leaves for winter salads, perfectly offsetting the dark green landcress and counteracting its strong flavour.  The landcress seedheads have now split, and I’ve chopped them down and laid the trimmings directly onto the bed, seeds and all.

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My saved seeds from the sorrel (shchnavel) have started to come up, so hopefully I will have small plug plants to add to the beds later for winter salads.   There are also red mustard seedlings which germinated in about 24 hours flat, which will add colour to the winter beds.  These are strongly-flavoured, but apparently are milder once cooked, so should be a good source of winter greens.

red orache to seed Aug 17

Red orache is producing well, and grew from saved seed.  However, I keep forgetting to pinch out the top to encourage more bushy leaf production, so I now have tall plants that are starting to flower.  This, of course, means more seed which is fine by me.

welsh onion Aug 17

Welsh onion is romping away, and is a useful source of oniony greens for potato salad or mash.  It has self-seeded, some of which I’ve collected, leaving the rest to sow itself.

Borage is everywhere, popping up out of the compost.  Luckily we have learned how to eat the leaves – cut out the centre stalks and sweat them in olive oil and garlic until they look like spinach (don’t add water or they will be too wet).

What’s not working?

borage beans sweet peas Aug 17

Whilst borage-blue sings out with the sweet pea hot pink and runner bean cadmium-red … whilst the bees are in seventh heaven … the actual beans are looking a bit floppy.  And no wonder.  Runners are thirsty plants at the best of times, and borage is no shrinking violet when it comes to taking up water.  So I have taken out every other couple of borage plants to give the beans a fighting chance.

cosmos thug Aug 17

Well … who knew that cosmos would be such a thug?  I thought their feathery foliage would be perfect for the polyculture, leaving room and light for leafy veg to grow.  But no.  No, no, no.  The question now is whether to cut it back before it has even flowered, or put it down to experience and try something else next year.  With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have included it in the watering with nettle tea (nitrogen).  This might have encouraged leaf production, which is the general idea for leafy veg but not for flowers.

There are few flowers in the back garden, so I might try moving some of the cosmos into a pot for back, creating more room for the kale and chard at the front.  Some of the chard is so desperate that it is running to seed, but it isn’t too late to start again.  Thinking to the future, I might try some herbs in and amongst the leafy veg, such as chamomile and dill.  These dainty little herbs may be less thuggish and more useful.  I’m sure cosmos has its place in the … er … cosmos, but that place is almost certainly in a pot.

Cooking squash leaves

Last night I went out and harvested these:

Squash leaves August 2017

Squash leaves, chopped off at the base of the leaf leaving the hollow stem behind for insects.  Washed, chopped up, and stewed for 5-10 minutes with garlic and olive oil, they were a delicious accompaniment to coconut and tofu curry (all courtesy of my husband who cooks up a mean dinner):

Cooked squash leaves August 2017

The squash leaves have a delicious flavour, and a texture that is hard to describe – crunchy, juicy, a little bit fibrous so you do have to chew them properly – but not unpleasant.

Having read Jennifer’s Kitchen, I think next time I will harvest younger leaves (they are more tender), and also include the stalks (she says they are delicious).  She also adds onions, which sounds like a tempting plan.

Finding something to eat

It is that time of year when it seems that everything is full of holes.  Everything is eating their fill, as they only have a brief window in which to breed, fatten up youngsters and get ready for overwintering.  But I do try to include edibles in my garden so that I can go out and harvest something fresh and nutritious to fatten us up for the winter too.  Rather than using pesticides or slug pellets, I have over the years worked out what types of plants survive this onslaught with enough left over for us.  Take the example of beans.  Here is a french bean that is currently lurking under the kale:

Munched french bean August 2017

Not much of it left!  I managed to get one harvest from about ten plants.  They are still doing a good job, because they are fixing nitrogen in their roots which the kale plants can use.  However, that isn’t a lot of beans.  Contrast with these:

Beans August 2017

Good old standby, the Scarlet Emperor runner bean.  This, believe it or not, is only six plants.  I planted eight and the slugs had two.  There is plenty left over.  These beans are aptly named, growing so fast that they outstrip the slugs.  One they’ve raced up their poles, they are usually safe.  From next week, we’ll have beans every other night and probably plenty to freeze too.  I’m growing them with sweet peas, and borage which sowed itself.  Borage has prickly scratchy leaves – but if you cook them, it goes like spinach.  And the slugs don’t like ’em.  Result.  Here’s another good source of greens:

Squash plant Aug 2017

A squash plant.  We live in the North of England, and this is in a North facing garden.  No way are we going to get fruits from this plant.  But that isn’t why I grew it.  The leaves, wilted in olive oil and garlic, are simply delicious.  And – as you can see – nothing else munches it.  Again, the leaves are prickly and uncomfortable.

So – thinking of ‘productivity’ more broadly – there is plenty for everyone.

Sweet Cicely

Imagine a delicate fern that will grow happily in damp shade, providing a patterned backdrop – that sweetens fruit with a delicate aniseed flavour – and that comes back again, year after year.  Sweet cicely, a perennial and wild plant, does all of these things.

sweet cicely July

Sweet Cicely July

Myrrhis odorata (from the Greek myrrhis ‘aromatic oil’, and Latin odorata ‘scented’) is also known as sweet chervil.  The nature writer Richard Mabey wrote in Food for Free that it was probably introduced to the UK by the Romans, and that the 16th Century herbalist John Gerard rated the seeds highly, “eaten as a sallad whilst they are yet greene, with oyle, vinegar and pepper“.  The practical herbalist tells us that the plant was popular in Victorian gardens – known as ‘Grandma’s Candy’ it used to be nibbled by children, and is also good for digestion.  It is related to fennel and a member of the celery family, apparently.

A couple of weeks ago, I harvested my first crop of seeds after checking with Anni that they were indeed ripe.  (Anni has some seeds available just now.)

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If you are growing sweet cicely from seed, you do need patience.  It needs a cold season to germinate (some sources suggest putting it in the fridge for a couple of months).  In my experience, it can take up to a couple of years to germinate.  I just leave the seeds in a pot outside and forget about them.  Eventually, after a year or two, it puts up a couple of unfeasibly long baby-leaves.  Once these appear, the first feathery true leaves soon put in an appearance.  Although it takes its time germinating, once it turns up it seems to be remarkable hardy, resisting the advances of slugs despite its tempting flavour.  In the winter it can disappear completely, before astonishing me by turning up out of bare soil in mid-late Spring.  Anni, in her book Edible Perennial Gardening, has warned that it can overtake things somewhat if grown in the vegetable beds.  She grows it with kale and fruit bushes, which I guess can stand up for themselves.

A little green helper

I’ve been dismayed lately by the numbers of aphids being farmed by ants on my edibles.  I do try to be patient, to wait for the predators to move in and for balance to be re-established, but …

aphids on kale July 17

Aphids on kale

… I was starting to wonder whether I should intervene.  If I pick off the affected shoots, will the ants just move somewhere else?  Should I make life a little less cozy for them?  I was just thinking perhaps I should do something, when I went out to have another look:

insect eating aphids on kale July 17

Green insect eating aphids

Do you see what I see?  A tiny green insect, like a narrow shield bug.  I think s/he was at the dinner table 🙂  Perhaps I have help after all.