Grow, forage, cook: a disappointing harvest

As August has bid us farewell and summer has melted into the season of mellow fruitfulness, I’ve started to feel a little bit of a fraud.

It’s been great to see so many of you joining in with our Grow, forage, cook series; Laura posted what we hope will be the first of many round ups of some of your mouth-watering photos and recipes last week: August round up.

I am practically salivating onto my keyboard at the sight of all the wonderful jams, pies, salads and other delights, made from homegrown or foraged foods.

I, on the other hand, a founder of this wonderful series have not, I confess, been out day after day picking the bounty of my garden.

Despite Laura’s kind words about my gardening prowess, back when we launched this series a month ago, this year has been my least successful when it comes to growing food.

Homegrown apples | Wolves in London
Apples from my tree: about the only edible thing in my garden right now

There was the excellent plum bounty, to be sure, and the apple trees have produced a small but steady supply of really delicious apples (though nowhere near the apple glut we had the first year we moved in). The brambles at the bottom of the garden by the greenhouse have been nothing if not prolific.

But, to the production of these delicious fruits I have assisted but a little. Yes, I did prune and thin the apple and plum trees earlier in the year (I recall the rather worrying incident of a heavily pregnant lady swaying atop a rickety ladder fairly well). And when it comes to the brambles, well, I have actually spent quite a lot of time and effort trying to eradicate them, so far completely unsuccessfully.

But everything that I have actually tried to grow has been an unmitigated failure.

Come take a stroll with me, if you will, and see if you can spot the problem…

Horrible courgette | Wolves in London
Erm, what can I say, this looks utterly vile

Now, I hope you’re not eating anything when you take a look at the photo of my single courgette. Yes, this limp (I am restraining from using the word “flaccid”) nibbled, part yellow specimen is the solitary courgette produced from my courgette plant. Appetiising? Not so much. Everyone, but everyone growing courgettes has the September “what the hell am I going to do with all these courgettes?” quandary. Everyone, that is, but me, who knows perfectly well that this sad looking specimen is headed straight for the wormery. The slug damage inflicted is just too great for any recovery now.

A few steps over and you find this glorious prize winning aubergine.

aubergine flower | Wolves in London
Yes, it’s really pretty, but can you turn into into baba ganoush?

What’s that you say? Just a tiny little flower? Oh. Yes. So it is.

Though the plant has put out about 30 flowers this year, not a single one has produced a fruit. I don’t know whether it’s lack of germination, or lack of water at a crucial time or just lack of luck, but this is the best I’ve got from the aubergine plant…

I can’t even show you a photo of my purple sprouting broccoli plants, veg that I have grown in previous years and eaten with delight for the whole of the winter months. I lost them all a few months ago to caterpillars. Overnight.

The broad beans are certainly more successful because they have, gasp, produced one whole entire almost certainly edible bean. Hurrah! This is he.

Broad bean | Wolves in London
Granted, the slugs might have a harder time if I actually weeded around my poor bean plant

Hot on the success of my lovely borlottis last year, I planted half borlottis and half broad beans. I cared for them, nurtured them from seed, watered and loved them in the greenhouse and, in May, certain the last frost was over, I planted them out into a specially prepared patch in the garden. There were 24 plants in total.

Two weeks later there were three.

Now, there is just the one, with this single bean hanging from its stem.

Slugs. Bloody slugs again.

Even the cucamelons, something I declared both prolific and fail-safe after my first attempt growing them last year, are struggling on, pitifully, producing a few fruits but mostly dying down.

Cucamelon | Wolves in London
Awww, I never tire of their cuteness!

The problem with it all, of course, is lack of time. I never use chemical bug killers or computerised sprinkling systems because of environmental / sustainability issues. But hand slug-removal and hand watering are only good if you actually *get out into the garden and do it*. This summer, what with one thing or another (thing one: a toddler, thing two: a baby) free time has been slightly on the rare side and the poor garden has rather suffered as a result.

The one hope for any sort of real harvest I have are my beetroot, which succumbed in a big way to some sort of fungal disease a month back (the result, I am certain, of letting the sproglet be in charge of watering them, which will have bounced the fungal spores all over the place. Never water from above in the middle of the day, I know that, of course, but the sproglet loves watering the garden so much that I feel exceedingly mean to deny his enjoyment…) At one point they had not a single green healthy leaf among them. Now, amazingly, a pleasing resurgence and they look as if they might yet produce some decent roots for eating.


Beetroot | Wolves in London
Sunkissed and, astonishingly, still alive, hurrah!

So the verdict from my garden this year. Pests: 1; Sabrina: 0.

I’d love to end on a deep philosophical note about how gardening isn’t just about the end result, but also the pleasure of time outdoors, taking a moment out of your life, yadda yadda yadda < insert appropriate homily here> but, you know what, I really wanted to actually grow something to eat this year and I am pretty miffed at the sorry show.

So please, keep your pictures coming so I can live vicariously through your gardening successes! Tag your photos #growforagecook on instagram, tweet us your blog posts (to @circleofpines or @wolvesinlondon) or just leave a comment below.

Meanwhile, over here in slug city, my love of stocking the larder won’t be thwarted (Autumn time to me = permanent eye-watering vinegar aromas in the house as I pickle / chutnify everything I can get my hands on…) But if it’s not made from plums, apples or blackberries, it’ll be from the veg box this year, not the fruits of manual labour.

Ah well, seed catalogues have been circled and next year’s planning has already begun…

The story of the asparagus pea

Like most back garden-vegetable growers, I can’t resist the lure of the unusual.

Asparagus pea plant
What is this horticultural marvel? It’s none other than an asparagus pea. (Plus a few aphids because, you know, it came from my garden and that is aphid central…)

We’ve all heard innumerable times about the quest of the evil supermarkets to stamp out choice and offer us only the same few varieties of veg (those that store well and grow uniformly) whereas we (the elite! The vanguard! Those sticking it to the man!) with our allotments, our vegetable gardens, our peas growing in pots on a balcony, well, we have the option of growing every variety on offer in nature. Which is a pretty huge choice.

Not for us your orange carrots in plastic wrappers. Oh no! I’ll have a purple haze carrot, please, freshly pulled this morning.

Your prosaic beetroot is purple, pickled and in a glass jar? Ha! Mine is striped white and pink and still has a little bit of soil on that I just can’t shift…

And don’t even talk to me about your imported, rock-hard, bland supermarket tomatoes. Tomatoes! I don’t even know if those tasteless things deserve the name. Mine are heirloom and eaten as soon as I pull them off the stem.

Now, I say all this with my tongue firmly in cheek, but it is of course also true. The reality of veg growing is that you’re going to spend ages – months in fact – lovingly tending a seed to a seedling, planting it out into the soil, watering it every flipping day in this insanely hot weather, fighting the good fight to prevent it being completely devoured by slugs and finally, hopefully, getting a small crop from it, which is probably enough for a meal or two. Well, you don’t want to go through all that just to get a bog standard crappy variety of carrot that you could have picked up from your corner shop…

So, my desire for the unusual meant that I found a marketing email from Suttons seeds completely irresistible earlier this year. The email offered me the chance to buy some seeds from a wonderful veg I’d never even heard of before. A vegetable called the asparagus pea.

I love peas. I love asparagus. You’ve pretty much got me sold by the name alone.

As if the seed description had been written entirely to appeal to me, after saying the veg tastes like a cross between peas and asparagus, it went on to say that it is popular throughout Southeast Asia, a particular favourite spot of the world for me (though I have to mention that in the two years I spent living  / travelling there, I don’t think I ever came across one of these little beauties…)

And the joy of growing this amazing sweet, delicious-sounding vegetable that I couldn’t buy in any shop was the cherry on top of the cake.

So a packet was ordered and I cared for the little seeds lovingly.

I photographed the progress of my plantlings, already certain of success and the amazing blog article I would write, outlining my new discovery and the wonders of this magical plant.

The flowers are undeniably attractive, starting a dark, dark red:

asparagus pea flower bud
Oooh the excitement when I first saw a flower…

And then turning a bit lighter when they’re fully in bloom:

asparagus pea flower
I think they’re quite attractive with the flower peeping through the green leaves

And after the flower, they produce some wonderfully frilly and odd-looking “peas.”

Asparagus pea
Have you ever seen an odder looking vegetable?

But it was at this point that the story of the asparagus pea becomes a sad one. My first sign that all was not quite as I had imagined came when I went to check how I would know they are ready to pick. The seed packet told me I should harvest them while they are still less than 3cm (or 1 inch).

This seemed so ridiculously small that I thought it must be a misprint. I checked online. I found hundreds of florid descriptions of this wonderful vegetable, all ecstatic about its delicate taste and all saying that yes, indeed, it needed to be picked when they were less than 3cm long “otherwise they will taste too stringy.”

Hmmm. At a quick count, I am growing nine plants. Each of which has produced four or five peas. So, a total of 45 peas, tops. Peas that are less than 3cm long. I think if you ate the whole lot as a side with one meal that would probably be a reasonable amount to eat. For one meal only.

Still, not to worry, not to worry, for this one meal will clearly be a spectacular delicacy.

I picked the first five when they were ready and – following instructions from the internet – put them into a plastic bag in the fridge to wait for some more to be ready. Vigilantly, I checked the little asparagus peas every day. After a few days, a few more were ready. I picked them and went to add them to my bag…

…but the asparagus peas in the bag had wilted away to nothing.

Right, I thought to myself, time to eat these eight asparagus peas and see how wonderful they taste.

Asparagus peas
Ready for eating. A meal for a giant! (Excuse the iPhone pic…)

As the seed packet had instructed, I lightly boiled them, adding nothing else in order not to risk spoiling their delicate flavour (again, the pedant in me would point out that Southeast Asian cuisine is not world renowned for lightly boiling things and not adding flavour, but hey ho…)

Now, if only I had seen this article (and comments) on the cottage smallholder’s blog in advance, I would have been prepared for what awaited me.

The vegetable tasted neither of asparagus nor pea. Neither my partner nor I could put our finger exactly on what it did taste like.

He said, “It’s not quite as bad as unpleasant but it’s certainly not nice…”

Cardboard seems a little harsh, but there certainly wasn’t a distinctive flavour I could recognise. Perhaps the hard outside of a bean that’s grown very large would be the closest I could venture. Fibrous and green, but not, exactly, tasty.

So the lauded, beautiful and unusual asparagus pea spectacularly failed to live up to expectations. Often the way, isn’t it? Poor asparagus pea.

Ever the optimist, I’ve now taken to a daily examination of the cucamelons instead…*

One day he’ll be a grown up grape sized cucumber-watermelon mix

*Not a euphemism

Related articles:

  • My (tried and trusted) rhubarb is a far greater success: bounty from the weekend
  • And though I don’t necessarily recommend these seeds, my method of planting seeds in loo rolls has probably saved me a far bit of money over the course of this year…