THE ESSENCE of my horticultural nostalgia has often been of a culinary nature, and has come to renewed prominence this summer.
When I first arrived in Shetland in the autumn of 1976, I soon became aware of one very important fact: the long term well-being of every individual in this country, perhaps the very survival of the British nation, seemed to depend on two vital substances: germolene and lucozade. The former had to be – I wouldn’t’ be surprised if there was some by-law – slathered liberally onto any wound, be it burn, cut or abrasion, while the latter was de rigueur for anybody feeling poorly or doing a stint in hospital. Speedy recovery, I was told, depended entirely on a free flow of lucozade, in the latter case supplied by caring friends and relatives.
Whenever I confessed that where I came from both were unknown, my admission was met with disbelief and, at times, pity. Once, when asked what the Germans used instead, I was stumped for an answer, and I’ve been wondering for years how on earth not only the Germans but the non-British elements of humanity managed to get along fine without lucozade or germolene? At long last, I’ve found the answer: they, along with much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East use dill instead. Germans aren’t called krauts for nothing (kraut means herb) for they grow dill in vast quantities and use it in just about anything. The oil this plant produces is high in iron, manganese and calcium; it protects against free radicals and carcinogens. It treats insomnia, indigestion, flatulence and colic, flu and colds, strengthens hair and fingernails, and stimulates milk production in nursing mothers. It was used as a painkiller in ancient Egypt, as a wound dressing by Roman soldiers, and was highly sought after for love potions and anti-witch charms in the Middle Ages. What more could you ask for?
A dill substitute, confusingly labelled “dill”, turns up in local shops from time to time. It looks exactly like dill, but it neither smells nor tastes like the real thing. To get the true dill experience you must grow your own. Sow it in May and give it the richest piece of ground you can find.
Yes, the time has come to plan ahead, and to have a look at the seed catalogues, picking out cultivars – in no particular order – that have a proven track record at Lea Gardens, most grown in an open field. With a few exceptions we purchase our vegetable seeds or tubers from Marshalls, Shetland Horticultural Society and Lidl Supermarket. If you don’t mind, I’ll omit those tiresome single quotation marks indicative of a cultivar.
Jerusalem artichokes have a unique, nutty flavour, need a long, warm summer to mature their tubers, but can be helped along by starting them off in large tubs in a greenhouse or tunnel before placing them outside. Fuseau produces large, smooth tubers that are easy to peel.
Apart from the delicious Pink Fir Apple we tend to grow potatoes with high blight resistance, such as Sarpo Axona, Sarpo Mira, Valor, Verity, Lady Balfour and Cara – the latter is susceptible to slug damage.
When it comes to leeks, good old Musselburgh is the one that produces the fattest shafts. A few always bolt, even in a good season, but they can still be used, and produce offspring from the base into the bargain.
Brassicas (members of the cabbage family) take up between a quarter and a third of our vegetable field, swedes and turnips are sown in situ, and the rest are started off under glass from mid February/early March for planting out from late April onwards.
Let me start with a vexation: there used to be a Brussels sprout called Widgeon which was perfect for the Shetland garden in every respect. The plants were short, stocky and completely wind and weather proof, the yields were high and the green sprouts firm and tasty. Alas it isn’t on the market any more as far as I can make out, and I’m stuck for a replacement. We used to grow Peer Gynt (perhaps of Scandinavian extraction?), and that did rather well but is now also quite hard to get, superseded, we’re told, by “improved” cultivars. If you have a variety you can recommend, please let me know.
Thankfully some other ancient brassicas are still around, and Greyhound is the most reliable of spring cabbages. It hearts up from late June onwards, and is equally good eaten cooked or raw in salads. Tundra is unbeatable as a winter crop; it stands well into spring and produces enormous heads. Savoy cabbage is quite different in flavour from the smooth-leaved kinds, and we are trying the compact, blue-green Alaska next year. Curly kale completes the leafy brassicas, and the Italian Cavolo Negro, though not as hardy as Dwarf Green Curled or Winter Bor, is unbeatable for flavour.
I also prefer the Italian calabrese to broccoli, the heads are smaller but have the edge when it comes to taste and texture. Calabrese Arcadia crops from August to April, from a February sowing. Cauliflower All Year Round is an ancient variety, and as good as any other, as far as I can make out, but I was rather taken with the orange and purple ones described last week. I’ve managed to track them down at Plants of Distinction. They’re called Collage and Graffiti respectively, or you can buy the mixture Kaleidscope, which includes a green-curded cultivar. This brings me to Romanesco, the most extraordinary cauliflower I know, and one that does well in our climate. It is a rich green concoction with conical heads composed of spiral-patterned little turrets; a treat for the eye as well as the pallet.
One can never have enough fresh peas as far as I’m concerned. Both Kelveden Wonder and Hurst Greenshaft give enormous yields and crop for a long season, especially if picked regularly. Harvest them while young and sweet, and leave a few until they fill the pods like rows of square green molars.
Broad beans seem to divide the gardening fraternity, some love them, some loath them. For those with restricted space, I recommend The Sutton, a dwarf variety with well-filled small pods. For bumper crops to fill your freezer, try good old Aquadulce Claudia.
If you’re fond of young, tender turnips you can’t do better than growing Atlantic, a bright pink cultivar that doesn’t bolt and needs no thinning. Swedes are among the easiest of root vegetables, and grow to an enormous size. Melford is as good as any, and Marion is club-root resistant, if that’s a problem on your soil.
Carrots are another easy crop, provided you protect them from carrot root fly. Some gardeners use fleece or low netting fences (the fly can’t approach vertically), we use a thick mulch of grass clippings. Chantenay Red Cored 2, Anhanger, Norfolk Giant and Berlicum 2 Berjo have all produced excellent crops, almost regardless of sowing time. A dry summer, followed by copious rain can cause all carrots to split. Lift and store to avoid this.
Parsnip White Gem and Avon Resister are the varieties of our choice, producing large, broad-shouldered roots if thinned out in good time. Like carrots, they don’t like freshly-manured soil, and do best on well-cultivated, light soils.
Ah – Beetroot. A life without beetroot – unimaginable. Here, in my experience, cultivar choice doesn’t matter much, and I tend to buy the cheapest seed – always with good results. Use Boltardy, if you have problems with yours running to seed. Cylindrica is what it says on the packet, but the long roots, if left in wet soil have a tendency to rot from the base.
Swiss Chard Forkhook Giant used to be the best for Shetland, but has since been beaten into second place by Lukullus (from Lidl). Bright Lights has stems in shades of cream, yellow, orange, red and purple and smaller, more tender leaves, but yields less than the plain varieties.
Our kitchen garden is almost complete. Fennel Cantina swells up well and stands without going woody for a month or two, and courgette Long Green Bush is the one for growing out of doors in Shetland – provided you start it off indoors and protect it during early summer.
Finally a few varieties for those gardeners who tend to sow late, but still want a reasonable crop: Parsley Bravour, pea Ambassador, beetroot Boston, carrot Lisa, cauliflower Serac, and kohlrabi Lanro are all quick maturing, and available from Marshalls. You could also try French Bean Duel, under a cloche.
With all these vitamins, minerals, trace elements and antioxidants to hand, you probably manage to survive without lucozade, and if there’s no germolene to hand, dress your wounds with a few toasted dill seeds instead.