Saturday, 17 January 2015

The growing pains of Otter Farm.

The growing pains of Otter Farm | Life and style | The Guardian:
How to grow remarkable fruit and vegetables
1. Choosing what to grow. Drawing up your wishlist is the key step – it sets the parameters for what success can be. If the sun shines when it should and it rains when you're at work, you may well get exactly what you asked for, so only ask for jacket potatoes, onions and cabbages if that's what you dream about eating. Ignore plant groups, forget about any limitations your garden may have and think imaginatively. Let flavour be your guide.

2. Grow what you most like to eat. Make a list of all the food you love. Add to it anything you love the sound of. You'll be surprised at what you can find a way of growing: pears on dwarf rootstocks; peaches, apricots and nectarines growing on the same tree; strawberries growing vertically.

3. Grow what you can't buy. Some homegrown foods bear little resemblance to those in the shops. Peaches, nectarines and apricots are all picked early and firm to transport, and once picked their sugars stop developing, so they never quite have the marvel of one picked at the perfect moment. Asparagus, sweetcorn, peas and early carrots will have lost most of their sugars in the rapid conversion to starch that follows picking. Grow them for yourself and get them to the kitchen within minutes and they will taste luxurious.

4. Grow something unexpected. Quinces, mulberries and salsify are three of the many that don't suit the supermarket system, and all are among the very finest food you can eat. Why not buy your jacket potatoes and onions and give their space to a subterranean pear (yacon), the sweet, lemony oca or Egyptian walking onions (which give you chive-like leaves, spring onions, shalloty mini-bulbs and larger main bulbs all from the same plant) instead?

5. Challenge your tastebuds. John Peel used to say of The Fall (one of his favourite bands) that if they brought out an album he didn't like, he'd just assume that he hadn't discovered how it was good yet. This is a perfect attitude to have with food. If you hate it, grow it, at least once. Chances are it'll be so far removed from what you buy in the shops, or be so fine in combination with something else you grow that you'll be converted.

6. Grow food that's expensive to buy. It makes little sense to grow the cheap stuff and keep forking out for the pricier food, but that's exactly what most people do. Grow something delicious and expensive instead. High prices tend to result from a short season of availability (eg asparagus, forced rhubarb, purple-sprouting broccoli) or trickiness in harvesting commercially (eg, globe artichokes, woody herbs), so if you love them, grow them, and you'll save yourself plenty of money.

7. Transformers. The transformers are those harvests that ensure your main crops have any number of costumes to dress up in. They are typically long on flavour and short on volume – herbs, Szechuan pepper, Egyptian walking onions, etc. A little goes a long way, so if you've only got room for a few pots they can still influence every meal you eat.

8. Think seasonally. It can be tempting to concentrate on the height-of-summer loveliness, ignoring the fruit, greens, buried treasure, salads and nuts from the other parts of the year. Among the many on offer are asparagus, blue honeysuckle and Mignonette strawberries in the spring, olives and cardoons in the autumn and medlars, Chilean guava and Jerusalem artichokes in winter.

9. Quick return. Like most things, growing is about confidence and momentum, so enjoy the taste of success early. Include some cut-and-come-again salad leaves, intense microleaves and pinch off day-lily flowers within a few weeks or even days of them starting to grow and you'll taste the difference.

10. Go for diversity. Generally speaking, a little of lots rather than lots of a little is what you're after. Go for a broad range of foods as well as a number of varieties of each – there can be a huge difference in flavour, performance and disease resistance between each type of, say, potato.

11. Aesthetics. A beautiful plot is undeniably more compelling to be in. Foster your own sense of the beautiful, afford it importance and you'll find your patch the place you most want to be for your morning coffee or to sip that early-evening cider. And every time you are there – especially if you're not gardening – you'll be cementing your garden's place in your life.

12. Get catalogues. When picking plants go to someone who does it for a living: they know what they're doing and they have an interest in you coming back. Look through the descriptions of their varieties and remember what you are reading is a menu – you'll eat it, it's just that the service takes a few months.

13. Be realistic about your time. In the first year, bite off less than you can chew. If I gave you a tomato plant to look after you'd probably find the time; if I gave you a two-acre field you might find other commitments get the better of you. Your happy medium will be somewhere between the two and it's better to find where that is by working up from the tomato than it is working back from the field.

Mark Diacono at home on Otter Farm near Honiton.
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