Get up and grow: These days it seems that everyone is having a go at growing their own food - even the pick of London's top chefs, says Emma Townshend
Sunday 04 February 2007
With Carol Klein exhorting us every Friday evening on BBC Two's Grow Your Own Veg to get out in the garden and get on with it, I find myself wanting to assure the world that I'm not growing my own this year just because I saw it on the telly. But it's true, television does have the power to inspire us to try things we otherwise wouldn't, because it's easier to learn by watching someone else doing it first. And in Klein's case there's the added bonus that it's all relayed in a nice, hippyish voice set to a vaguely counterculture soundtrack. So as she shows off some just-plucked beetroots, Mick Jagger croons, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes…"
But buying vegetable seeds at the moment does feel a bit bandwagony, so much so that 10 February has now been deemed "Grow Your Own Veg Day". To celebrate, the RHS has teamed up with the Conran chain of restaurants to encourage us all to get growing. On the big day, admission fees to all four RHS gardens are being waived and Conran recipe cards featuring seasonal cooking ideas will be given out, along with packs to help get the most out of your harvest. Even better, they will also be giving away free seeds. Free stuff - never to be sniffed at.
I wanted to talk to someone who's just joined me atop the grow-your-own bandwagon, so I went to meet James Walker, the head chef of London's Le Pont de la Tour, who is an expert at cooking vegetables, and an enthusiastic beginner at growing them. All the windowsills in his SE1 home are covered in propagators and tubs bound up in greaseproof paper - a crop that ranges from cauliflowers to chillis. Despite having suffered some disappointment last year - "tiny weeny carrots", for example - he is determined to master the fine art of cultivation. "I'm not put off at all," he says, bouncily, "it's so satisfying when it works, and it's so incredibly relaxing to do."
Right now, he's celebrating the first olive to grace his little tree. But Walker says he finds the world of vegetable growing a bit arcane. "It's really difficult, with all the gardening jargon and the Latin names, to find out why things are going wrong when they do. That's what I find frustrating." His biggest disappointment so far actually seems to be seed-sharing societies on the internet. "I heard about them, these secret seed societies, and I was expecting people in long coats and shades, meeting in dark alleyways. When I realised it wasn't quite like that I did feel a bit let down."
In his professional life, Walker is a big fan of Borough Market stalwart Tony Booth: "Booth is the big link between vegetable growers and chefs. I can talk to him about something I've liked, such as parsley root, and he'll go off and find me a grower - and so a new dish can be considered for a menu." But Britain's most famous greengrocer isn't just having an effect on our chefs, he's changing the face of our seed catalogues, too. Parsley root, for example, is now available for anyone to buy, listed as Hamburg Turnip Rooted Parsley in the Marshalls catalogue (tel: 01480 443 390).
Probably the first of the Conran recipes you'll be able to cook is purple sprouting broccoli with ramsons, an idea from Peter Weedon, of City eatery the Paternoster Chop House. In championing the ramson, or wild garlic, Weedon is following West Country wisdom that I found in a book on medicinal plants: "Eat leeks in March, and ramsons in May, and all the year after physicians may play," so the saying goes. I grow my wild garlic (whose pungent aroma gives me an abrupt physical sense of spring's arrival) in an old sink that drained too badly for alpines. It sits in a dank corner all year round, gets dripped on by the gutter above, and seems absolutely happy. Remember what they say in Sligo: "nine diseases shiver before the garlic".
Next, is a summer potage of broad beans, with a smoked gammon hock, concocted by Mark Broadbent of Bluebird on London's King's Road. You can start sowing broad beans pretty much now, if you choose a winter-tolerant variety such as "the Sutton". The catalogues indicate that the crop normally takes about 95 days, which means you'd be picking beans at the beginning of May. "The Sutton" is a good choice for the small-scale gardener, because it's a dwarf variety and doesn't get much bigger than about a foot tall. Remember to plant in succession, which means writing on your calendar and running out every week or so to add another few seeds. This way you will avoid a glut where all your plants ripen at once. However, if you do want to make broad bean potage in early summer, you might want to plant a glut intentionally - counting back the weeks from an important June birthday, for example.
There's no accounting, though, for the weather, as Walker has found to his peril in recent years. "Climate change has hit chefs badly," he says, "it has effected produce in lots of different ways. Some veg seem to be taking longer to come into season, others are coming quicker. There's been a very noticeable difference." Another very good reason to change the way we eat, perhaps.
Though the idea of Klein's programme is that you can grow a good proportion of your five daily fruit-and-veg portions in a surprisingly small area, the carbon-emission issues are important too. Fruit and vegetables grown locally by the people who eat them incur tiny transport costs. They are also likely to be a lot higher in vitamins and minerals as they've been picked much closer to the time of eating. So there you go. Even if your garden is tiny, you could still opt for something like Thompson & Morgan's Patio Vegetable collection, comprising the seeds of 17 different tiny vegetables for 26 (tel: 01473 688 821). Perhaps not exactly what you want, but very definitely, what we all need.If you do one thing...Clean your windows
This may seem like strange advice in a gardening column, but windows provide all the solar energy your house plants will use to feed themselves over the coming months. Dirty panes can reduce the amount of 'solar gain' received by a third.
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