Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Creative Vegetable Growing and the Harvesting Dilemma

Many moons ago, inspired at a lecture by the doyenne of creative vegetable growing, Joy Larkcom, I designed and planted a beautiful patchwork quilt of cut-and-come-again salad leaves. As I watered in the last lettuce, I knew that this edible blanket of burgundies and greens would look even better once the plants had knitted together, so I postponed capturing my creation on film. 

RHS Wisley - several years ago, but since
the advent of digital photography.
The next morning, before I left for work, I decided to take my morning coffee by my lettuce (as you do) and to my horror, I was met by bare soil and a few stumpy stalks. For unbeknownst to me, lurking under the canopy of the cedar tree was a hungry muntjac deer with excellent taste in salad leaves, but no respect for lettuce art. 


Since then, I have created pleasing, yet fleeting edible foliage combinations which have been enjoyed by rabbits, pigeons and caterpillars, but not slugs. You may recall that I blithely blogged about the lack of slugs in the farmhouse garden http://thegardeningshoe.blogspot.co.uk/2013_04_01_archive.html  well, I have had my comeuppance. Why wouldn't we have slugs in the farmhouse garden? Because there was finer fare around the corner in our new kitchen garden. 

Having been raised in a hospitable household, my natural instinct was to offer my guests a drink. Being slugs, their chosen poison was beer. Ten little beer-filled containers were duly set out for the molluscy revellers and despite initial fears that I was creating a hugely popular gastropod gastropub crawl, the slugs have been merrily availing themselves of one beer too many and our veggies are finally showing signs of recovery. 


Growing food decoratively is a tricky business, because even if it survives the excesses of slugs, deer, rabbits and birds, we will eat it and in so doing wreak havoc on our edible scheme. Cut-and-come-again lettuces succeed in the world of food art because we can pinch the odd leaf here and there and not spoil our salad tapestry (it is a pity that no one told the muntjac about this valuable attribute of these leaves).  


There are plenty of edibles which look great despite regular harvesting, but many crops simply look gappy. I have tried succession sowing and planting, intercropping and the occasional selectively placed rhubarb forcer, but these methods are too time-consuming for me at the end of a working day and a rhubarb forcer looks downright incongruous in the middle of a patch of onions. Consequently, I have been on the lookout for a solution and I think I have found it. Instead of seeing a gap in the garden; I see a meal I have enjoyed. Absurd as it might seem, this desperate attempt at reframing seems to be working. 


I finally stopped fretting about gaps in the veggie borders following a tour of the two acre organic kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Now I think, if they are good enough for Raymond Blanc, they are good enough for me. Of course, a two Michelin Star chef in my kitchen, waiting to prepare my homegrown veg would be splendid.... well... I need to fantasise about something as I offer a top-up of beer to the molluscy guests on a tour of my own rather less extensive, but equally organic kitchen garden. 

P.S. If you have never read anything by Joy Larkcom before, I urge you to take time to look at her work. Her books introduced me to so many of the crops I enjoy growing today and I frequently revisit her writing when I am looking for inspiration. 
The last two photos show the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, where the crops look great, but taste even better.    http://www.manoir.com/web/olem/le_manoir_gardens.jsp

37 comments:

  1. The transient nature of veggie art is a problem isn't it? Fortunately we don't have muntjacs but I did notice an escaped pet bunny at large on our allotment site the other day. I hope he has either found his way home or found someone else's plot more accommodating!

    I'm afriad I went off Raymond Blanc a while ago after a TV programme he did.

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    1. Argh... I hope the bunny made it safely home - for the sake of its owners and your veggies.

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  2. I'm a big fan of Joy Larkcom too - but also plagued by pigeons, muntjac and slugs. Inspired by Joy I planted shallots in a cross with carrots and beetroots in the V shapes of the cross but my shoddy digging of potatoes has meant I have rogue potatoes from last year's crop spoiling my lovely pattern. I mixed parsnips and nigella and scattered them in a block (another idea from Joy) and it seems to be working well so far though. Have to say despite pests, your garden does look wonderful.

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    1. Yes - Joy Larkcom is so inspirational, isn't she?

      I am afraid I can't lay claim to the gardens in these photos - one is Wisley; a couple are from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons; and the rest are old photos because our new kitchen garden is still undergoing a post-slug recovery programme! I love the idea of shoddy potato digging - I hope it was shoddy because you were spoilt for spuds, which is impressive given the amount of blight flying around last year. Good luck with your hungry garden guests - I hope they leave you something.

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  3. Anyone who can claim links to Joy Larkom and Raymond Blanc in a single blog post must be a good gardener, regardless of how many gaps they have in their veg rows!

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    1. Or someone who is gadding about attending things instead of slug hunting!

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  4. Your garden is beyond beautiful! You are definitely an artist! I can not imagine how you felt when you saw your lettuce chomped down! I think gaps are just fine!

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    1. My garden is beautiful to mountaineering slugs at the moment (I keep finding them up bean poles!) While I have learnt to love the gaps, I would still rather have the time to put another plant in place and have a lovely scheme all the time. We are starting new gardens here every year, so there are parts which are still young and too gappy for words! On the upside, I am marvelling that we didn't lose a single plant in the farmhouse garden last winter despite all the snow and harsh, cold winds, so at least we haven't had to start again anywhere.

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  5. I love the idea of decorative veg gardening but my garden just isn't big enough to accomodate anything like the top picture. I make mine decorative by interplanting with flowers - I think I prefer a more natural look anyway. Fingers crossed - I haven't come across many slugs this year but there are plenty of snails - I'm not sure snails enjoy a drink of beer like their cousins do.

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    1. Snails have always struck me as being rather more sensible than slugs! I like to see veg interplanted with flowers - some of the foliage/flower combinations can be incredibly successful.

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  6. When I saw your first photo of the decorative lettuce, I was sighing for I always have wanted to make such a lovely Victorian kitchen garden with decoative blankets of vegetables, but........my garden is too small, I also like roses and flowers and.....

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    1. I think all gardeners secretly yearn for a huge Victorian kitchen garden.. and if we were to get one, we would probably need something even bigger within a year or two!

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  7. You're garden so very pretty, looks like you spend many happy hours in your garden.

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    1. I am afraid that I spend far too many happy hours in my garden - today I was out there at 5.30am.

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  8. Joy Larkcom's Grow Your Own Vegetables is the book I refer to time and time again when I want a question answering. Funny that I haven't read anything else by her though, I must remedy that. I do sympathise about the slugs, such pesky things they are. They're the bane of my life.

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    1. The one I use most is Joy Larkcom's Creative Vegetable Gardening - it is very well-researched, accessible and inspiring.

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  9. "Gastropod gastropub" - love it, such a brilliant phrase! I keep meaning to set out grapefruit halves (having discovered how useless crushed eggshells are) but the best method of slug deterrent I use is to chop them in half when I find them. They're then put out for the birds - a win:win situation as I hope this deters the birds from my veg.
    Thankfully I have no room for veg art, I strive to be more of an Alys Fowler randomly sown gardener, although I do love to see a nice herb knot garden!

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    1. PS. I'm a big fan of Joy Larkcom, starting with Creative Vegetable Gardening and then going on to other tomes. Wish I'd seen her at the Garden Museum earlier this year ....

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    2. Thanks! I can't chop them in half - it's pathetic. If I try to kill a slug, I scream the garden down. I didn't know Joy Larkcom was at the Garden Museum this year - she's really interesting and an engaging public speaker, so I hope she returns soon.

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  10. I've seen plant tapestries like those before but have never planted my own. I don't have the room to create anything like those pictured but I think I could manage to stuff them creatively into a pot. That will be the only way to save them from the bunnies!

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    1. I have been learning the art of potted veggie growing since we moved to Norfolk. I suppose it's the cost of being surrounded by all this glorious countryside!

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  11. What beautiful lettuce art! I've never had a vegetable garden that beautiful (or even close). Those dratted deer! How clever to lure the slugs away from your kitchen garden with one beer too many. :-) I enjoyed the lovely tour. All the best!

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    1. It was a clever idea until I discovered that Sprout had learnt to paw away the covers I had used to protect other creatures from falling into the beer. A container of beery slugs is one thing - seeing your pet dog drinking the beery slugs is quite another. Yeuch.

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  12. can't even imagine planting all that lettuce only to have a deer devour it. I've thrown a few tools - a few fits - at deer but that would have taken the cake.

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    1. I was incredibly disappointed about what had happened. To be honest, I was equally upset about the slugs scaling my runner beans to get at the fresh new leaves. I have never thrown anything at slugs or deer - with my aim, the tool would probably ricochet off a tree and hit me on the head!

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  13. I love the idea of tapestry planting of vegetables, but I love my flowers too much and in my postage stamp size garden I have to make tough choices about what to plant. My veg patch is currently 4 large window boxes with herbs, lettuce, radish and beetroot, and I have more lettuce than I can manage to eat, I gave a whole bag to the neighbour last week as the box was too crowded. Tapestry planting looks wonderful in photos, though I wonder how you get space enough to walk around weeding and harvesting?!

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    1. Good point, Helene! If my lettuce had lasted long enough, I may have been able to offer some advice about tiptoeing through the salad. Unfortunately, I can only guess that hoeing would have been a time-consuming and fiddly affair and that harvesting would have required the expense of a new garden tool with a long handle. You are clearly having a very successful harvest this year - I bet your neighbour was delighted to receive a bag of home-grown produce.

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  14. It's all in our perspectives, isn't it? :) I love your newfound perspective of a meal eaten - something gained - instead of something missing. And I love the idea of a quilted salad garden! I've never even tried to get my vegetable garden to look good. I figure it's for function only, but you may have changed my mind a bit about that.

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    1. I understand that for many people, the key factor when growing their own food is the end product; but I like my kitchen garden to be a garden. I am pleased that you might have changed your mind a bit, since I get so much satisfaction from trying to grow food in a way which pleases the eye. It doesn't always work; but it wouldn't be such a fun challenge if it was easy. Meanwhile, I am concentrating very hard on looking on the bright side of the gaps left by my harvested beetroot.

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  15. The tapestry idea for veg is very interesting. I couldn't do it here because everything has to be covered and protected from rabbits. They would have no respect for any kind of veg art! I've no problems with slugs so far(unlike last year) and now everything is so dry I'm hoping they won't trouble the veg at all this summer.

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    1. Rabbits are definitely not in the business of conserving veg art! May your slug-free summer continue!

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  16. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves as gardeners to have everything look good. That a vegetable garden tastes good is all that truly matters. I must open a bottle of beer for the slugs in my garden. My hostas look like Swiss cheese!

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    1. At the end of the day, we are growing food to eat and while I enjoy harvesting and eating my homegrown produce, I also enjoy trying to make the kitchen garden attractive and experimenting with planting combinations. Gardening should never involve pressure; unless of course you have thirsty slugs, in which case, keeping them topped-up is quite a pressurised job. I hope your slugs have enjoyed a good drink and that your Hosta plants are making a full recovery!

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  17. I am not a vegetable grower, however I do like salad leaves where you don't have to remove the whole plant. Often I have grown these between the ornamental planting, on seeing your first picture in this post perhaps I could be more creative.

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    1. They do make lovely foliage plants, Alistair and they seem to have quite good longevity when they are regularly harvested. I think I will try your idea of using them in the ornamental garden closest to the kitchen in the hope that I will remember to pop a leaf in my sandwich.

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  18. Your first photo is truly inspirational, but, oh, those hungry critters! I have a small veggie plot. I spent a lot of money on it this year to make it look pretty. I think we have harvested 5 tomatoes and two potatoes. And a handful of onions.

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    1. A nouvelle cuisine harvest. I hope you are picking more from your garden now and that next year it will reward your investment with a bumper harvest!

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