Sunday, 13 October 2013

Kitchen Garden Multitaskers

What is your horticultural multitasking superhero? For me, it is the runner bean. It may not be the most fashionable or glamorous of plants, but it has an attractive twining stem; delicious pods; it makes a valuable contribution to structure in the border while taking up little space; it fixes nitrogen in the soil; and the flowers are hugely popular with bees. Could any plant ever match the multitasking capabilities of the mighty bean? Surprisingly, there are a few good-looking contenders in our kitchen garden this year.

Asparagus pea pod
I had been warned that I might struggle to spot the difference between asparagus peas and pencil sharpenings,* so any peas with sharp wings go straight into the compost bin and we eat only young pods. They are so delicious that they cause ructions at the table and I have been compelled to count pea pods onto plates. This painstaking act has triggered happy memories of my own childhood, when bowls of trifle were launched in turn onto kitchen scales to ensure that each of us had a fair share of pudding (I now applaud my mum's patience and in the interests of self-preservation, I never serve trifle). 

Asparagus peas
Asparagus peas (Lotus tetragonolobus) have exquisite foliage and the daintiest of flowers. These little plants would look perfectly at home in an ornamental border or a containerThey are a visual feast and an edible delight. My only regret is that I didn’t grow more of them this year.

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) has added a touch of the exotic to our plot this summer. Its broad, generous foliage is intriguingly veined and contrasts beautifully with the intricate shamrock-like leaves of oca (Oxalis tuberosa). This undemanding duo have a long growing season and while we wait eagerly for frost and our first excavations to see if there are any edible tubers, our garden will continue to benefit from their exceptional weed-suppressing capabilities, while I get to enjoy an occasional nibble on delicious apple flavoured oca leaves.

Another root crop with beautiful edible foliage is the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. Most of the plants are in the kitchen garden, but since we do not have a greenhouse, I concealed a few pots indoors and guess what? Sweet potatoes masquerade as houseplants so successfully that no one has mentioned past indoor crop misdemeanours such as the cucumber kitchen curtains fiasco (for which I am profoundly grateful).**

Sweet potatoes incognito
There may be another reason why no one is alluding to cucumbers. My children have long-ridiculed me over my hatred of cucumber skin. They think that peeling cucumbers is a ridiculous waste of time; or they did until this year, when I started growing a variety called ‘Marketmore’. This cucumber thrives outdoors; it is delicious; crops prolifically; and best of all, when harvested young, it has spikes! Even my most vociferous dissenters on the cucumber-peeling front have been forced to eat their words along with their sandwiches. ‘Marketmore’ might not be the prettiest plant on the patch, but by silencing my detractors, it has achieved something that beans can only dream of.