Gardening: Back off, bunny!

First there were spring storms, then mice, then rabbits. Yet the vegetable garden has weathered the lot. And how!
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The Independent Culture
Finally, the vegetable garden has come good. Earlier in the season, it was touch and go. There were some torrential thunderstorms in spring which washed seed straight out of the ground. And then there were rabbits. Tasting, tunnelling, titivating themselves among the poor remnants of my seedlings, they assumed a level of insolence this year that I had previously noticed only among the mice that overwinter in our house. Their house, they insinuate with each twitch of their exquisitely groomed whiskers.

I am amused by the mice. They are vastly entertaining. I opened a cupboard in a spare bedroom this week to find that one of them had discovered a paper bag full of exquisite pale blue taffeta ribbon from V V Rouleaux in London. The mouse had carefully pulled the entire seven yards into a minuscule crack between cupboard shelf and wall. Only a tuft remained to show what had happened to it.

Hand over hand, as if hauling in an anchor, I pulled the whole length (unchewed) out of the hole and put it back in the bag, but now it's gone again. This time, I'll leave it. It's diverting to think of the mouse wrapping himself up for winter in pale blue taffeta ribbon.

But I have no warm feelings towards rabbits. Finally, we had to fence off the main square with chicken netting while we made a determined onslaught. After a two-month vigil they were all driven back into the fields they had come from, and the holes in the boundary were stopped up.

Now the main square is overflowing with beans, courgettes, cucumbers, sweetcorn, chard, chicory, beetroot, carrots, leeks. Nothing in the garden gives me more pleasure. And I carried out the idea I had (too late) last year and planted blocks of brilliant zinnias between patches of spinach, oak-leaved lettuce, ruby chard and other leafy crops. Zinnias with ruby chard, like ham and peas, is a marriage made in heaven.

Once again, I planted in patterns, rather than straight rows. In the centre is a circle of sweetcorn (`Xtra Sweet Improved', Marshalls, pounds 1.45), grown from seed first sown on 5 May, lost to rabbits, then replaced later. That is why we are still waiting to pick our first cobs. Usually this is a bomb-proof crop and not something to be without. Some vegetables - onions, potatoes - can stand hanging about before they are eaten. Not sweetcorn. As soon as it is picked, the soft, sweet, juicy kernels start converting their sugar to starch. Flavour and texture both deteriorate.

The plants get enormous, but all the growth is up rather than out, so you can fit a lot of plants into a small space. They need to be planted in blocks, rather than single rows, so that they are properly pollinated. Bad pollination results in cobs with too many missing kernels. Often, I sow seed singly in three-inch pots inside and set out plants when all danger of frost has passed. This year I sowed direct into the ground outside, which would have worked fine, except for the wretched rabbits. Plants do best set about 18in apart.

Round the central circular block of corn is a ring of courgettes and cucumbers, all raised inside from seed sown individually in three-inch pots towards the end of April. Compost does not dry out so fast in plastic pots as in old-fashioned clay ones. Sometimes this is an advantage, but it increases the risk of over-watering, and courgette and cucumber seeds will soon rot in soggy compost.

I used the yellow courgette `Gold Rush' (Marshalls pounds 1.23) partnered with green `Ambassador' (Marshalls pounds 1.23). In their catalogue, Marshalls put a knife and fork by `Ambassador' to show it tastes particularly good. I think yellow `Gold Rush' has the edge, though. Both, of course, taste best when picked very young. Their taste and texture are then creamy and rich. If they are left in situto grow bigger, the taste becomes watery.

As with sweetcorn, you can set out these plants only when frosts are a thing of the past. I usually put a glass bell jar over my plants, as an insurance, when they first go out. This keeps slugs away too (and rabbits). Outdoor cucumbers have the same ground-hugging habit as courgettes. I used `Marketmore' (Mr Fothergill, 99p). But whereas courgette leaves all splay out from a central point, cucumber plants snake along, making ever- longer stems. Yesterday I retrieved a cucumber that had settled snugly in the mint bed, at least four yards away from where it started.

I wouldn't call cucumbers "must have" vegetables. They are easy enough to grow, but their uses are too limited. I like them cut into batons, blanched and tossed with peas in melted butter, but our own cucumbers are never early enough to use with our own peas. And this year, the rabbits had all the peas. Cucumbers need rich soil, and the old-fashioned way was to grow them and courgettes direct on the compost heap. I prefer bringing the compost to the cucumbers.

Round the outside of the square are four thick borders, one of rhubarb chard (Suffolk Herbs, 80p), one of beetroot (`Boltardy', Marshalls, 72p), one of carrots (`Valor', a new F1 hybrid from Marshalls, pounds 2.09) and one of parsnips (`Tender and True', Marshalls, 59p). The chard, sown direct into the ground on 5 May, is outstanding: brilliant post-office red stems, with dark, crinkly foliage gathered round them. The plants are at least three feet tall, benefiting, I think, from the fact that this has been a wettish summer. After one downpour in late June, I mulched them with rough mushroom compost. They enjoyed that, too. And the bonus is that we now have a crop of mushrooms.

There have been disasters, of course. I raised a boxful of beautiful, purple-leaved kohl rabi from seed I bought in America. All were munched to the ground by the rabbits. Fortunately I used only half the seed in the packet. I want to try them again. It is an extraordinary vegetable, sitting round and plump above the ground with its sparse leaves sticking out all round it like a badly made hat. It's called `Kolibri' and you can buy it from Johnny's Selected Seeds, Box 2580, Albion, Maine 04910- 9731, USA, or e-mail the firm at homegarden@johnny seeds.com

Pop across the Channel this weekend to ogle the produce at Chateau Hex, where there is a festival of fruit and vegetables. There are guided tours, displays and produce for sale in the grounds of this 18th-century chateau at B-3870 Heers, Limbourg, Belgium. Open today and tomorrow (10am- 6pm). Admission BFr 300. For more information call 00 32 12 74 73 41.

Or go to the tomato festival at the Jardins de la Bourdaisiere, at 37270 Montlouis sur Loire, France. The gardeners here have amassed more than 450 different kinds of tomato, which are on display with other vegetables and herbs. Open today and tomorrow (9am-7pm). Admission Fr 32. For further information, call 00 332 47 45 16 31

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