July and August are the months in vegetable gardening when all the hard work really becomes worth it. The plot is visibly and audibly alive. Insects hum, fruit ripens, the sun often shines. Triffids spring up up every time you look away. Don’t blink!
The gardeners job now is to eat more currents and beans than you thought humanly possible. And to work out ingenious ways of storing the rest.
Barbra Kingsolver has a lovely autobiographical book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. What most stuck with me is where she says that the only time her neighbours lock their front doors is in the middle of summer. Not for worry of being burgled but in fear that someone might come and leave a ‘gift’ of unwanted courgettes. It is a plight that will resonate with most growers.
In this article I’m going to take you on a little tour of our current edibles.
The purple climbing beans (Cosse Violet) have begun. Hooray! These ones were sown early may, so that’s two months from sowing to harvest. The ones we can’t eat now will end up blanched and frozen.
The Greek Giganti Beans are covered in lovely white flowers and are aiming high. True beanstalks. They’ve started beaning too but we are growing these for seed so wont be picking many until the pods are dry. Lazy Housewife pole bean seems true to it’s sexist name, and is being super slow.
The peas have been amazing this year. All from The Real Seed Company. We watered a lot through the dry spring but once they outgrew the weevil level (about a foot), they took off. Just when we thought they’d stopped they had another flush. Our green Telephone Peas for podding haven’t been as tall as in the past but they were super sweet even when fat. Our Golden Sweet yellow mangetout have been plentiful and vigorous. and have a very mild pea taste.
The pea prize this year however goes to Spring Blush sugar snaps. We haven’t done them before so this was a pleasing discovery. These were the first to go in in mid march and we’ve been eating them daily since may. They are healthy and pretty plants with a lot of tendrils that actually climb well (we find lots of peas don’t). They are very juicy and crunchy and sweet enough that little T thinks they are a great treat.
The peas have a very ‘in’ problem though. They’ve got a virus. Pea Enation Mosaic Virus to be precise. It’s an RNA virus that is transmitted by aphids. It give the leaves slightly psychedelic patterns. I was pretty excited as we haven’t had a pea virus before. Flip side to the novelty is that the peas are going wrinkly with black spots and generally dying. It doesn’t transfer to animals or even to french beans by the way.
Anyway, virus combined with the pea moth caterpillars that we always get around now signals the end of our lovely pea season.
Our garlic doesn’t warrant a photo. We have heavy clay soil and our success with garlic tends to be patchy. We decided not to bother with it this year as its pretty easy and cheap to buy local nice garlic (although I was outraged a few years ago to see only Chinese garlic in a supermarket in prime UK garlic time). However what is the point of a plan if it can’t change.
Garlic is grown from cloves. one clove swells and then splits into cloves, together they make a garlic bulb. The splitting bit needs a cold spell to happen. After the mild winter of 2018/19 we had lots of single round garlic bulbs instead of multi-cloved delights. Still perfectly edible. Anyway, we must have missed a bunch when harvesting because I found them sprouting this winter (2019/20) and shoved them in an empty bed. Turns out they were unsplit bulbs. Come spring, they split into cloves but then each clove sprouted itself and then split again. So each ‘plant’ was actually a little cluster of garlic bulbs. It’s tasty and will store but wont win any competitions for size. Interesting though.
Our onions are growing well. They are a mix of white, brown and red. We did some from seed (Franchi’s Tris di Cipolle) , planted January and some from set, planted April. They are at all different spacing and we take out closely spaced ones to eat as spring onions/scallions. They are bulbing up nicely under their netting (which we use as we’ve had awful attacks from leek moth in the past). Currently they are what I’d consider shop bought onion size and we’ll pull them up after the tops fold over.
Ooh, you might notice in the picture above that there is cardboard between some of the onions and also between some of the beans above. I’d love to go full on no dig but my partner is doubtful so as a middle ground we are trialing a few beds. The cardboard is great as a weed suppressant and water retainer. Plus it’s free and biodegradable.
The beets are glorious. We have boltary and the wonderful stripey chioggia. They have been so happy. One minute they were weedy mini chards next they were swelling. I’ve just done another sowing to try and last us through the winter. Here’s some showing off on a plate with cucumber and mangetout
We struggle with carrots on the allotment, the seedlings always mysteriously vanish. But we’ve had great success in pots and in our raised bed at home (did I say we’d built a raised bed over our front driveway?!). Carrots tend to fork in rich soil so I’ve been sowing in all last years spent compost pots that I hadn’t emptied yet. Isn’t it great when not getting round to stuff gives a useful result! Little T has discovered he really loves carrots and has been growing them on a windowsill. We sow every few months for continual snack food.
I’m going to include potatoes in this section too. I am ashamed to say, I don’t like them. I try, every year I try. We grow them because they are such an easy to grow, high yielding starch. Every year I get enthusiastic about picking varities, love the lush growth, relish in the treasure hunt digging process. Then we eat them and I’m just a bit, ‘meh’. I’m ok with the tastier, waxier, nuttier ones like pink fir apple but to be honest, I don’t find the washing process is worth the reward. This year we couldn’t get to our usual potato fair. While everyone else was stock piling toilet paper I panic bought seed potatoes from a local sell everything shop. They weren’t in great condition and seem to have been a bit of a muddle of varities but actually have done really well. We’ve harvested what called themselves earlies and now we need to work out how to use them. I wish we could grow sticky rice instead.
The soft summer fruit is coming to and end and that makes me sigh. Currants and berries are my favorite of all things allotment. Sweet and sour and gloriously weird.
We have a decent sized fruit area and the flowers that I told you about back in April have given us a lovely crop. Two gooseberry bushes, one red and one green, four white current bushes, four red current, two black currant, a jostaberry (as big as a car) and lots of raspberries. We also have a tayberry and a japanese wineberry. I eat all these things straight from the bush in large quantities but even I have a limit. We’ve found most berries freeze well raw and whole. And this year so far we’ve made, white current, gooseberry, jostaberry and blackcurrant jams. Mmmmmm.
We’ve also had the first plums and a few apricots from the small trees in our garden. The apples are starting to look like apples and the autumn (!) rasberries have started.
Our courgettes, although slow to get going have finally taken off and we are quickly reaching the recipe brainstorming stage. The squash too are now trailing off into the other beds and happily setting fruit.
Despite the idyllic appearance, growing your own food is not always happily sampling berries under the summer sun. Things inevitably go wrong.
Sweetcorn was our first big dissapointment this year. I sowed around 30 plants. We planted it out at exactly the wrong time. One week before a massive late frost was forecast. Despite covering it, the little plants were very despondent. It recovered but is a good two foot shorter than our neighbours who planted theirs out three weeks later. Doh. Every year we try to grow more corn but somehow the twists and turns of nature mean we always get around the same amount. Corn growing in an Escher painting.
The tomatoes too have been a bit of a saga. For a few years we’ve been growing our tomatoes in our back garden under a little canopy as this seems to delay the onset of blight. The issue is we don’t have enough growing space to rotate so we grow in containers. This spring, to cut plastic (and peat) use, we decided not to order sacks of potting compost. Instead we got some potting gravel, coir bricks and a ton sack of vegetable compost to mix our own growth medium. To top it all off, we decided to trial growing in hessian coffee sacks. 100% recycled waste from a local coffee company and achingly hipster.
Unfortunately, pretty quickly, my healthy tomatoes went yellow and sickly. Using some pH indicator, I tested the soil and discovered that the veg compost was crazily alkaline. This is an issue because tomatoes like slightly acid soil, pH 6-7 and can’t absorb nutrients properly if the pH is wrong. Ours looked around pH 8.5. Now, this was the middle of lockdown and finding all the things that my gardening book said to correct alkaline soil seemed difficult. I did however have a massive crate of vinegar. For the next few to every watering can I added some liquid feed and a couple of glugs of vinegar.
In a few weeks, the soil pH was down and the plants were greening up nicely. They are catching up with the ones next to them that were in the ground. All are happy and laden with fruit. We’ve had a few cherries but the rest remain adamantly green. Lots of varieties on the go, these pics are Golden Sunrise and Caspian Pink.
Our cucumbers are in pots under glass and something is up but I’m not sure what yet. They are still producing cucumbers but in a sort of ‘need to reproduce before we die’ way. They had a lot of aphids at one point so maybe like the peas it’s a virus. Or maybe it’s just my inability to water things regularly. Just next to them the sweet peppers are happily bulking up and the first ones are starting to blush.
The melons however have a flush of male flowers, wait a fortnight then have a flush of male flowers. And repeat. No melons yet.
Also a slightly unusual one but now a regular in our repetoire, the cape gooseberries (physallis) are starting to ripen. Or they would if mini T didn’t eat the fruits immediately they showed any sign of colour. Luckily the plants are branching so may start to out pace him soon.
We don’t tend to grow salad at this time of year as it bolts without tender care. The wild rocket is rocketing though and the chard is as big and flamboyant as ever. The basil too has been out of control. I’ve been growing napoletano basil and I’d definitely do that again. It is slightly more aniseedy than classic basil and some of the leaves were actually as big as my palm. It’s just going to seed now and the flowers are gorgeous white spires.
While now is the time for eating, seed sowing and growing does not stop in the summer. Now is the time to make sure that things are ready for winter. Our leeks and brassicas (purple sprouting broccoli, kales and sprouts) are all in ground and getting established nicely.
Our window sills currently house red cabbage, kohl rabi, chinese cabbage and pakchoi seedlings. I unwisely put the fennel seedlings outside and now only 6 our of around 60 plants exist. We are also trying turnips and swedes for the first time this year. Let’s hope I remember to water them while gorging on beans.
I’m sure I’m missing something but I suppose its been sucked under the green tendrils of summer and down into the grassy depth of my mind. Shame we can’t weed in there really isn’t it.
Autumn comes next. When the world turns orange and gold and everything bulks up for the long winter ahead. That feels a while off though.
For now, here’s a fluffy summer bee bum to wrap up this post.