Winter is easier to bear when you have a garden. Gardening is optimistic, it’s looking ahead to spring and summer. It’s organising. For me, gardening involves planning the veg garden and buying seeds in early winter. That, in turn, involves writing lists and mapping out the veg beds on paper. I don’t know about you but the possibility of lists, plans and colour-coding always makes me happy, no matter what the weather is doing outside. I’m just fun like that.
As the days get longer in January, the start of the gardening season is so close we can almost smell it. It’s common for older Bulgarians to start their tomato seeds on the same date each February. For our neighbours it’s February 8th. Seeds are sown and the seedlings raised indoors until it’s warm enough to plant them out. We’re a little more relaxed about when we sow our tomato seeds – anytime in February/early March is okay by us, depending on the weather – but they’re always the first thing we start. By the end of March, it’s full steam ahead and every windowsill is covered in pots of various seedlings waiting to go out. When it’s dreary outside or it’s been so snowy that walking to the village shop becomes a mission, sowing seeds, or even the thought of sowing seeds soon, really lifts the spirits. Spring is just around the corner.
As I didn’t write much about the garden last year, here’s a rundown of successes and failures from last year’s efforts and the new things we’re planning for this year.
I’m going to say a word and I don’t want you to roll your eyes. Kale. Our kale was outstanding last year. Look, I’m not some sort of Kale Smoothie Wanker, I just really, really like greens … spinach, mustard greens, the tops of beetroots and, yes, kale. More often than not we’ll eat it raw in salads – you do need to massage the raw leaves in the dressing so they soften up a bit, but I am unapologetic about how wankery this sounds because it’s genuinely worth doing. Or I like it wilted down with garlic and served on toast, or topped with eggs, or with any roasted vegetables. Failing that, you can chuck it in any old stew, curry or soup. We have about 10 relatively small plants (of the green, curly variety, not cavolo nero) and they’ve given us a great supply of leafy greens from June right through winter. They’re still going now. Amazing.
|I don’t have a proper picture of our kale, which is weird considering how obsessed I am with it.
But it’s in the foreground of this picture, to the left. Very awesome it looks too.
Tomatoes. Bulgarian tomatoes are the best in the world, no question. We grow a big Bulgarian pink variety and a Bulgarian yellow variety that we originally got from our neighbours years ago (no idea of the name but it’s bright yellow and shaped like a small lemon). We also grow a cherry tomato named Latah – not Bulgarian – which produces masses of delicious, early tomatoes. We grow all our tomatoes under cover, in the new polytunnel last year but under a couple of sheets of plastic before that, and we’re usually swimming in tomatoes from early summer to October. Rob made some tomato ketchup last autumn and we froze loads of passata, which has brightened up winter meals. AND last year I discovered pomegranate molasses on tomato salad and it rocked my tiny world. What? It’s possible to like pomegranate molasses and not be a food wanker, isn’t it? Isn’t it??
|Pinks, yellows and reds. If Benetton made tomatoes, their ads would look like this.
|Young tomato plants in the polytunnel.|
Courgettes. I think last year was the first year we got the courgette balance right. We weren’t overrun by the bastards in a stressful, horror-movie-type way, but we had enough to enjoy them a few times a week. Whenever we do get a little overwhelmed by courgettes, I like to make this courgette chocolate cake (minus the margarine icing) or make a big bowl of tzatziki using courgette instead of cucumber. But it didn’t happen often last year. Our first summer we had six courgette plants (six! WTF were we thinking?) and I was bringing in 12–20 courgettes every other day. By last summer, we were down to just two plants and normal levels of sanity.
Parsnips. Reliable little beauties every year. We always dig some up just before Christmas (it wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without honey-roasted parsnips) and leave the rest in the ground over winter. In February and March, when all you can find at the market is potatoes and cabbage, those parsnips are as treasured as chocolate or gin.
Butternut squash. Not a roaring success in 2015 but better than the year before where we only got about four squash. We grow our plants upright over a trellis, which definitely affects yield but it’s a huge space-saver so we’ll keep doing it that way. So long as we have enough squash to use one a week from Christmas to the end of February, I’m happy.
For some reason our swede didn’t fatten up at all, they just stayed really skinny and weird-looking. Not sure why that happened as they’d been one of our most reliable crops in the previous three years. We had to have carrot and parsnip mash for Christmas dinner instead of carrot and swede mash. It was an outrage.
Mustard greens. In a *slight* administrative error, I forgot to order mustard green seeds for last summer. I know, I was as shocked as you. So we used the dusty dregs of the previous year’s packet and hoped for the best. It didn’t work. But it’s okay because we discovered the joy of kale.
Lettuce/rocket. Every year I try lettuce and rocket. Every year I fail. Our garden seems to move from too cold for salad leaves to too hot for salad leaves in the space of about three weeks. I’ve tried growing it under cover, indoors, in the autumn … nothing. I give up. Thank goodness for kale. KALE.
Sweet potatoes. The sweet potato season was doomed from the off. I always grow mine from scratch, which basically means growing slips from a few organic sweet potatoes placed in water. The first batch of potatoes didn’t grow any slips (maybe not as organic as the label said). The second batch produced a good number of slips but they went in the ground too late to produce tubers. Still, we’ve managed to grow them every other year so fingers crossed for 2016.
New for 2016
More leafy greens. As well as normal beetroot, we’ll also be growing a couple of rows of beet greens. These are basically beetroot leaves without the beetroot underneath. (I always worry about harvesting too many of the leaves from the beetroot plants, so beet greens seem like the ideal solution.) We’ll also be trying pea shoots for the first time, which’ll probably turn out just like the annual rocket/lettuce debacle.
Turnips. Monty Don likes his turnips left whole, covered in butter. That sounded ruder than it needed to. Anyway, as soon as I saw that on Gardeners’ World, I was sold. Turnip seeds have been purchased. Butter will be purchased in abundance. So long, gallbladder.
Asparagus. We have an asparagus bed full of crowns that we grew from seed, which takes forever but we didn’t have a choice in Bulgaria. Last year, finally, we started getting proper spears but we were still very limited on what we could pick without exhausting the young plants. This year should be our first proper harvest. Again, butter will be purchased in bulk.
|Should really have weeded and watered before taking the picture
but I was too excited because, you know, ASPARAGUS.
Strawberries. We’ve grown strawberries for a few years but last year I made a conscious effort to root off lots of the runners so we could make a new, mammoth strawberry bed this year. Digging will commence in March.
Blackberries. Our neighbour gave us a couple of blackberry canes last year, which is great as I love them. Back at my old office job in the UK, I would happily spent £2.50 on a tiny punnet of blackberries from the Waitrose next door, mug that I am. In theory, they’ll produce berries this year but the canes look a bit sickly if you ask me. Maybe that’s normal in February? Watch this space.
A word or two on herbs
If I had a tiny garden and could only grow one thing, I’d grow herbs. Especially basil. Pesto was always outrageously expensive back home, and it’s even more so out here. So we grow dozens of basil plants and, at some point in September, spend a whole day making pesto. I’m not kidding, a whole day. We make a year’s supply of pesto in that one day (it freezes great) and save ourselves a fortune.
Last year we also grew sage for the first time and it’s been a trooper, hanging on through -15C weather and knee-high snow. We also started oregano, savoury and chives last year. And we still have some coriander surviving on the bedroom windowsill which should have been dead by December. We’ve had rosemary and thyme for years but I wish I’d grown more herbs sooner. They make me feel like a proper cook.
We’re lucky enough to have loads of mature fruit trees in the garden: mulberry, apple, quince, plum, and pear. And we have THREE walnut trees, which is insane, but somehow we eat every walnut. With all that lot, we’re not planning any new trees for now. We planted a couple of peach trees in 2014 which are settling in nicely. And we got some small lemon trees last year so fingers crossed for some lemons in 2016 for our gin. I’d like a couple of small sour cherry trees in front of the house, like some other houses further up the village but, you know, seeing as we don’t even have a proper garden fence or gate right now, they’ll have to wait a while.
Uh, I could wang on about the garden for days. I pretty much just have. Your fingernails have probably grown six inches in the time it took you to read this post. In fact, spring is gone already. You missed it. Sorry about that.
Only joking. Spring is just around the corner. Soon my blotchy English arms and legs will feel the warmth of the sun. (Soon after that comes the suncream-sweats and insect bites but who wants to think about those trifles in February?) Soon it’ll be spring. Soon. Let’s bung more logs on the fire and rejoice!
|Taken in July 2015 before everything got really big and bushy. That’s rhubarb in the bottom right corner.
Jerusalem artichokes are the tall buggers at the back, hiding the ugliness that is our polytunnel.