IT'S THE WEEKEND: A garden that looks good enough to eat
THERE is no greater pleasure for a gardener than stepping out into your garden, or glancing along your kitchen windowsill, and being able to eat straight from the produce you've grown. EMMA MACKINTOSH investigates the possibilities of an edible garden.
WHEN you think of gardening and growing, you may often think of pretty flowers and edible produce as completely separate entities.
But contrary to Robert Louis Stevenson's poem 'The Gardener', in which he described the gardener as lurking "away behind the currant row, where no one else but cook may go", that separation does not have to be the case, and in a time of recession, every little really does help - so why not combine the two?
Groups across Gwent have already taken up the idea and run with it, such as the 'Plant to Plate' project in Newport which has been developing an new allotment site - formerly an unused piece of land - within the laundry area of Tredegar House, in partnership with Duffryn Community Link, the National Trust, and Growing Spaces.
The project, which has just entered Week 22, started with volunteers building raised beds and planting up seed trays, making use of greenhouses and polytunnels to help start off the smallest seedlings.
By week 5 the core group of eight volunteers were helping plants climb up wooden frames and by week 8 they were already picking vegetables and planting more - proving that it does not take long before you've got a bumper crop, ready to start eating.
Learning coordinator with Duffryn Community Link, Jane Lewis, explained that the project about having healthy food and the option to grow it yourself, rather than simply buy it from the supermarket.
With most gardeners also being cooks these days, the most common and perhaps most widely recognised version of an edible garden would be a sea of delicious fresh herbs, which not only taste great but also smell great too. One of the most prolific - mint - can be grown inside over the winter, or outside during the summer.
According to EatSeasonably.co.uk, both spearmint or peppermint plants will grow well, so buy a young plant and place it in a 12-inch pot, filling below and around the plant with compost. Be sure to water it (but do not over-water) and place it on a sunny windowsill or in a sunny spot outside.
You may think that lettuce will only grow in summer - or that you have to have a fully-fledged vegetable patch in order to grow some - but in fact, you can grow it indoors all year round, ideally in a seed tray filled with compost, and it makes a pretty addition to any garden or indeed windowsill.
Sprinkle on the salad seeds following by another shallow layer of compost, then water it and place it on a sunny windowsill. It is important not to let it dry out and you can even put cling-film over the top of the tray to keep moisture in (but be sure to take this off when you spot seedlings starting to appear).
When the plants are about three inches tall you can start cutting them and they will keep growing back.
You can also mix different varieties together - don't think you have to stick with one type and be lumbered with it for months. You could add some peppery rocket, or a more crunchy lettuce, depending on your taste.
Moving away from the more traditional herbs and salad vegetables, why not give edible flowers a try, such as nasturtiums (scientific name, tropaeolum majus). The time for planting them has passed for this year, but with gardeners' minds already keenly trained on spring and next year's crop, this is one to bear in mind.
These are edible flowers like marigolds, and come in a variety of different colours from creams, yellows, oranges, reds and burgundy colours, as well as bush or climbing varieties.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), nasturtiums like to grow in the sun in well-drained soil and should be planted from March to May, outside where they are to flower (this may involve some weeding!) They will then flower from the summer through to autumn.
The RHS advises to rake the soil and make some small holes 20mm deep, with rows spaced roughly 30cm apart.
Sprinkle the seed in carefully and cover them up with soil. If the plants become crowded as they grow, you can thin them out to about 30 cm apart.
The petals from nasturtiums are edible with a peppery, hot taste, and can be added to salads.
Other edible flowers include cornflowers, which according to Rachael Voaden at the TheEdibleFlowerShop.co.uk make floral teas, a natural food colouring, can be used to decorate cakes or to make floral sugars and syrups.
Calendula is a popular edible flower (you may recognise this as a frequently used flower to have in bouquets at weddings), as are cowslips which have a honey-like sweet flavour, and like other flowers can be used to make vinegars, sugars and syrups as well as popped on top of cakes and desserts.
Wild primroses can be planted at this time of year but experts want that it is unwise to eat ready-grown plants, as you don't know what pesticides they've been treated with.
Neither should they be picked from the wild, as this has already led to a dip in the population as with many wild flowers, but they are known for their sweet flavour which can be sugared to create cake decorations, as fans of the cook Mary Berry may know.
There are dozens of others, from chrysanthemum, fuchsia, gladiola, hibiscus and lavender, to pansies, jasmine, lilac, dandelions, gardenia and violet.
Perhaps the ultimate edible garden accessory for this time of year - and a great way of saving money - is a colourful pumpkin, which should have been planted back in May or June ready for Halloween at the end of next month.
With 2013 being a mild, wet year so far, this hasn't really been a problem for this year's gardeners, but for 2014 make sure the frosts are over in your area before planting, as frost could kill young pumpkins.
Plant them directly into the soil about three feet apart in the garden, then water them well - and simply wait.
Only harvest the pumpkins after the leaves have started to wither and go crisp. To do this, remove your pumpkins with a short length of stem and leave them out in the sun or in a shed to dry out, so that the skin hardens.
Use the pumpkin flesh to make a tasty soup - served inside the pumpkin itself if you're feeling adventurous - by mixing the scooped-out inside of the pumpkin with butter, onions, cinammon, nutmeg, some chicken or vegetable stock, and a few glugs of alcohol such as sherry if you're feeling festive.
It also makes a delicious stew with red wine, carrot, celery, bay leaves, lentils and sour cream.
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