Having been away in Germany during April and May, it was only in July that I was able to sow vegetables and herbs. Rather late, I know, but none the less, over the summer, we enjoyed Asian vegetables, such as mizuna and pak choi (bok choy), as well as purple-podded beans and purple kohlrabi. (I was aiming for a jewel-coloured veggie bed.) I also grew dill, salad burnet, Thai royal basil, and an unusual pale green, fuzzy-skinned cucumber, known as Armenian cucumber. I also planted three Pink Fir potatoes bought in a supermarket for Christmas that had been left in the fridge. (Professionals advise to use only seed potatoes, but being new to potato-growing, I thought why not take a risk.) It was my first time to plant these. And, moreover, in a Mediterranean climate (plant hardiness zone 10, with winter minimum temperatures ranging from -1 to 4ºC). For the second time I raised local tomatoes and Bishop’s mitre peppers from seedlings bought from Viveros Agave, the nearest plant nursery. I was warned by our gardener that watering tomato plants before they´ve set fruit will lead to splitting, and indeed some did. They were still edible though. Valuable lesson learned. I also discovered that the Bishop´s mitre peppers, which I´d assumed were fiery hot, turned out to be sweet, with a complex fruity taste, with only the occasional one possessing a bite, and a mild one at that.
The mizuna greens made a nice last-minute addition to stir-fries and soups, and we ate the purple kohlrabi raw in salads. It’s a pity to have had to peel the kohlrabi’s brilliant skins. The purple-podded beans turned green once cooked, though their taste was outstandingly sweet. The runner beans did not take kindly to summer heat. Their orange flowers were decorative, and the occasional bean, like the purple-podded beans, was intensely sweet. The flavour of vegetables cooked just minutes from being harvested is truly incomparable, and the depth and range of flavour can tempt an omnivore to turn vegetarian. Now that it’s cooler though, the runner beans have set more pods. My gardening book (attuned to the English climate) says bean vines should be dug in at the end of summer, but they seem to be just getting into their stride.
Miraculously, a crop of daikon (Japanese giant radish), appeared, though I don’t recall having sowed any. Their origin remains an unsolved mystery. I’m leaving most of them in the ground over winter, as their flavour apparently improves with the cold. I might try making daikon kimchee (Korean hot peppery pickles), from a recipe by Holly in Beyond Kimchee.
The Turkish rocket that I´d grown last year on one of the raised beds seeded itself on the ground below. Since we have two dogs who are rather diligent in marking their territory, we haven’t harvested any. Luckily, the ants have been busily moving seeds about, and rocket plants appeared near the Thai basil on a nearby raised bed. Their leaves have lent a peppery note to several salads. Another crop, the Peruvian fruit physalis, has also appeared elsewhere in the garden, doubtless disseminated by the ants as well.
Last year’s crop of Italian kale (Nero di Toscana) continued to grow throughout winter, spring, and summer. I harvested all the leaves recently, but there are new shoots sprouting from the stalks. I shall wait to see what happens to these. I am learning that some vegetables regarded as annuals in a temperate climate, such as the Bishop’s mitre pepper for example, can overwinter here successfully. I’ve also read that Thai royal basil is a perennial in subtropical conditions — it remains to be seen how it fares with our winter cold. Perhaps the Italian kale will get more leaves….
One of my interests is neglected and under-utilized indigenous food crops, and this year I grew Amaranthus cruentus (variety ‘Velvet Curtains’), as much for its stunning colour contribution to the vegetable and ornamental garden, as to find out what this traditional cereal grain from Mexico tastes like. The tender leaves can be cooked like spinach but I have not tried this. I’ve now harvested the seed heads, leaving some on the plants for the birds to discover and tide them over winter. (The bird feeder with peanuts that we set up last year hasn’t been patronized at all. Perhaps because hunting is rife in our area, the birds are extremely wary.) Amaranth seeds have a nutty taste and were once used in Aztec rituals. The drawback is that they are tiny, and separating them from the chaff seems a formidable task. It is no wonder then that these and similar indigenous small-seeded and highly nutritious crops such as Ethiopian teff (Eragrostis teff) are being supplanted by larger-grained maize and easier-to-process wheat. Such a pity and what a loss of biological and nutritional diversity and culinary history. (That said, amaranth grains, as well as teff, are available in certain health food shops.)
Not least of this year’s bounty are the olives. The olive tree is alternate bearing, which means it bears plentifully only every other year. Next year we expect very little or no fruit at all. We are elated to be able to taste our own extra-virgin olive oil — 13 precious litres of yellow-green gold — and to have been able to watch the process of its extraction. In months to come we look forward to gradually sampling our home-made preserves of green and black olives.
For the bounty from this year’s experiments in veggie growing and the lessons learned thereby, I am deeply grateful. It has been amazing to discover and appreciate how truly and astonishingly full of flavour organic, homegrown, and just-harvested vegetables are. Bought vegetables, even organically grown ones, simply cannot compete with fare directly from the plant and straight into the pot.
The origin of Thanksgiving is to give thanks for the harvest, and in times past in temperate climates, the harvest referred to wheat and other grains which matured in autumn. The word ‘harvest,’ I was surprised to recently discover, comes from Old English hærfest, meaning ‘autumn.’ A close relative is the German word for autumn, Herbst. What splendid and magnanimous timing indeed is harvest in autumn, enabling the laying of food stores, for humans and wild life alike, for the wintry months ahead.