What is the new fashion which will be promoted at us in the next six turbulent months? It looks as if it will be plants for food, grown safely away from soil level in pots. I approve of this move wholeheartedly. It is one which this column has been endorsing for several years and although my own results have been mixed, I can see how they could easily be better.
The RHS is backing a new book on the topic, Grow Your Own Crops In Pots. The author, Kay Maguire, is a dashing Kew-trained blonde, formerly the horticultural editor of Gardeners’ World magazine and a keen cook. She knows what she is talking about, although she ends with a few pages on “edible flowers”. Do you ever eat those bits of blue-flowered borage which sometimes find their way into a second glass of Pimm’s? I like the lay-out, the bullet points and the range of her book. It is ideal for all those people who say that they would like, in principle, to have a garden, but only have a bit of a balcony or a backyard. Fruit and vegetables in pots are the answer to their aspirations. They succeed more often than not and give you one of life’s supreme pleasures, home-grown fruit and vegetables which you have personally controlled all the way into the food chain. There is no risk you will be eating somebody’s once-beloved horse.
I recommend an experiment this year with fruit. Do not be seduced by exotics such as peaches or lemons which need a long, humid growing season if they are to be much good outdoors. Begin with three old favourites which have given me such pleasure: raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. I would add metal dustbins to Maguire’s list of basic kit. They are deep containers which are cheap to buy or recycle and so long as you punch a hole in their bottoms, they are excellent hosts for taller choices like raspberries and runner beans. I first saw their potential in the garden of the late ingenious designer David Hicks. He used painted dustbins as flowery containers on areas of gravel. We both remarked how we liked the effect of the fluting on the dustbins’ sides. They seemed so whacky at the time but now they deserve to be mainstream. In a dustbin you can grow very good raspberries, so long as you remember to water them freely. My personal favourites are the autumn-fruiting varieties which have transformed the raspberry calendar in recent years. I recommend the variety Autumn Bliss, a welcome lift in late September when everyone else is trying to offload their excess apples. Remember one important tip. Summer-fruiting raspberries must be cut back immediately after fruiting as they fruit next year only on the growth they make in the rest of the previous season. If you cut them back now, as if they are herbaceous plants, you will ruin this year’s crop. Autumn-fruiting raspberries do the opposite. They fruit on the new season’s growth and are easy to fit into a spring schedule. Cut them back now when they go into their dustbins and they will fruit well in September.
Gooseberries are better in a big pot as they need less depth of soil. I economise by buying the cheapest supermarket sort of terracotta-coloured pot, made of extruded plastic. Do not worry about the frightful rosy colour, it is easily covered with tasteful Farrow & Ball paint. Unfortunately gooseberries in bins are still prone to their deadly enemy, the sawfly, even when far above ground. It will strip off all their leaves in a few days and ruin the crop. Check the plants for caterpillars in April but somehow I never find them all. When the gooseberries then fruit, remember two sublime recipes. One is the combination of stewed and sieved gooseberries with an infusion of liquid from the heads of flower on wild elder bushes in our hedgerows. About 10 heads of elderflowers should be heated in a little water and then strained to remove the petals. This liquid is mixed in with the strained gooseberries and left to cool. It is then mixed in with beaten cream and sugar and left to set as a sort of ice-cream. The other recipe is even easier, good old gooseberry fool, the neglected winner of English summer puddings. It was the only such English summer option which the great Elizabeth David ever thought able to stand up to the best of the French. It delights and puzzles younger lunchers nowadays if they have grown up in towns and missed it, thanks to their urban mothers. Last year it was impossible to buy fresh gooseberries in supermarkets when the elder trees were thrusting their heads of flower at us, like flat cones of ice cream.
Dustbins are also ideal for growing my personal favourites, first-class runner beans on long beansticks. I never understood why the great gardener Christopher Lloyd dismissed runner beans as “acid” and glossed over them when he recycled himself as a gardener-cook. I enjoy mine all the more each August as an answer to his prejudice. The plants need to be damp to do well in big pots, so I begin by mixing water-retaining gel into rich soil before I plant them out. When they flower, spray the flowers with a fine spray of plain water to encourage them to set beans well. Like the birds, I prefer the red-flowered varieties, of which Red Flame is one of the best. There is plenty of time to organise this year’s crop. Runner beans should not be sown until late April as their young plants hate a cold night when they first go outdoors.
Last year I had excellent strawberries in old buckets. It is such a joy not to have to worry about strawing them and it is always a pleasure not to crawl down on hands and knees in order to pick them. I packed too many into one bucket, so this year there will be outlying buckets too. The only horse-product which will come near then is rotted manure from the local Olympic dressage stables.
Maguire has a section on “metre-square planters”, but the square-foot style of gardening became famous first in America. One of its apostles is Mel Bartholomew, who took to it when he retired in 1975 from his career as a consulting engineer. Why, he wondered, do we cultivate so much bare ground between and around our vegetables, as indeed we did at the time? He took up “square-foot gardening”, packing a rich compost with vermiculite, not perlite, and protecting it behind a big square box of wooden planks, set on their lengths at ground level. He subdivided the squares and planned the density which each section could contain in rotation. His book All New Square Foot Gardening has sold more than 2m copies and an adapted version, Square Metre Gardening, is now available in paperback from Frances Lincoln in the UK. It too has a healthy mistrust of ordinary soil at ground level.
Both Bartholomew and Maguire omit a crucial question in my country life. Do badgers jump? Somehow my resident old boar gets his paws into high-sided buckets. He scuffles around and knocks them over after ruining the young beans. I believe badgers love raspberries too but they cannot reach mine in a tall dustbin. Round lesser pots and buckets I now wind strands of barbed wire to teach Brock a lesson. Paws Off would be a valuable addition to these two books which are otherwise well up with fashion.