10 things to plant now for those salad days
If you want your garden to be brimming with tasty produce this summer, then it’s time to get sowing
Meet the Tomtato:
You say tomato, I say potato . . . but now meet the “tomtato”. Gardeners have taken to this strange plant in a big way. Its ‘USP’ is that it has the root system of a potato, grafted onto its genetically compatible cousin, the tomato. The result is an easy-to-grow plant suitable for container cultivation, groaning with produce both above and below ground; one tomtato plant is reputedly capable of producing a harvest of up to 500 ultra sweet cherry tomatoes along with up to 2kg of potatoes. Exclusively available in Ireland from Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com).
Chard, your flexible friend:
It’s pretty, easy-to-grow and remarkable versatile, looking right at home when grown next to dahlias or leafy vegetables, while its leaves are as tasty in an apple pie as they are stir-fried in garlic and soya sauce . . . It’s Chard ‘Bright Lights’. Sow seed now, under cover and in gentle heat, for transplanting into the kitchen garden in late May.
Ever heard of pineberries? No, they’re not the fruit of some strange variety of pine tree, but a bright new star of the strawberry family. The result of a natural cross between the white-fleshed Chilean strawberry and the North American ‘scarlets’, these delicious berries are taking the culinary world by storm.
The first pineberry probably appeared in the mid-18th century as the result of a spontaneous cross, but it was only a few years ago that Dutch breeder Hans de Jongh was able to recreate it using natural breeding techniques. The result is a plant with small delicate, white-fleshed, scarlet-seeded fruits that taste of pineapple, which appear in May-June. But there’s a catch. Plants aren’t commercially available in Ireland yet, so you’ll need to buy them on your next trip to the UK, or enlist a friend to do so. Alternatively, the UK-based mowitsowitgrowit.co.uk will deliver plants of the genetically similar ‘Snow White’ strawberry variety to Ireland. Pineberries can be planted until the end of May into fertile, weed-free soil in full sun.
You can also grow them in containers, but they require strawberry plants flowering nearby for successful pollination/ fruit production. For more details on pineberries as well as other strange fruits recovered from the brink of extinction such as the ‘strasberry’ and ‘bubbleberry’, see vitalberry.eu and berriesathome.nl.
Squash and a squeeze:
Squashtastic . . . mid-April to early May is the best time to sow seed of squash, a pumpkin-like member of the Cucurbit family with fleshy fruits that are delicious whether stuffed and roasted, baked in juicy slices, or used in a stew or soup. Among the best varieties for growing outdoors here are the nutty, fiery-skinned ‘Uchiki Kuri’ (also known as ‘Red Kuri’), the striped, flavoursome ‘Delicata; and the silver skinned, tasty ‘Crown Prince’; while Brown Envelope Seeds stocks seed of the large squash ‘Candystick Dessert Delicata’ which has a sweet, date-like flavour. Sow seed into individual pots, with heat and under cover, for transplanting outdoors after all risk of frost has passed. Plants need space and a fertile, weed-free soil in full sun with protection from slugs and winds.
Here comes the sun:
Bring extra colour into your life this summer by sowing seed of annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) within the next few weeks, either directly into the ground or into pots under cover, to transplant outdoors as young plants. Not only are the vivid flowers of this half-hardy annual attractive to pollinating insects, but their buds can be cooked and eaten like artichokes, while the edible petals make a very pretty garnish.
If it’s a variety of sunflower that produces grey or white-striped seed, then these are also perfect for roasting/ eating. Sarah Raven sells a seed collection that includes the large-flowered, primrose-yellow H ‘Valentine’, wine-red ‘Claret’ and the smaller, creamy-white ‘Vanilla Ice’ all of which also make also great cut flowers. Or if you’re determined to have a shot at beating the world record for the tallest sunflower (8.03 metres), try P&P Seeds ‘Tall Sunflower Craven 99’. Sunflowers like a very fertile, weed-free soil in full sun, with protection from slugs and strong winds.
I like my salads to be as beautiful as they are tasty, with a variety of textures, colours and flavours, which is why I’ll be busily succession-sowing small amounts of seed of lots of leafy goodies over the following months. Amongst my current favourites are the tart-flavoured, scarlet-veined sorrel; spicy, decorative Rocket ‘Dragon’s Tongue’; the nutritious, purple-streaked Amaranthus tricolor; and the crunchy, semi-cos lettuce ‘Little Gem’ as well as the heritage, purple-leaved butter-head, ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’.
All are perfect for container growing. Depending on the variety, some can be sown now under cover and into modules, for transplanting outdoors in late May, while others are best direct sown outdoors. I also always make sure to grow some edible annual flowers every summer, adding their petals to the salad bowl for an extra pop of colour; Sarah Raven sells an easy-to-grow edible annual seed mix that can be sown now, and which includes pot marigolds, violas, borage and nasturtiums
Ensure your diet is full of health-boosting natural phytochemicals by growing lots of colourful vegetables in your garden/ allotment this year. One example is beetroot, the easy-to-grow root vegetable so nutritious that it was traditionally recommended for convalescents as a blood-builder, cleanser and tonic.
Beetroot is also believed to lower blood pressure, enhance the immune system and help the digestive system, while anti-carcinogenic substances have been found in the vegetable (in particular, betalain, the naturally-occurring pigment which gives the beetroot its distinctive blood-red colour).
Recommended varieties include ‘Pablo’ and ‘Detroit Globe’. There are also varieties with colourful, edible leaves that are perfect for the salad bowl. In particular, look out for ‘Bull’s Blood’ and the hard to find ‘McGregor’s Favourite’.
Spice it up:
For a spicy alternative to coriander, try growing ‘Papalo’ (Porophyllum coloratum), a fast-growing, heat-loving annual herb from South America with a peppery, citrus flavour that adds a bite to chillies, tacos and salsas.
Papalo does best when given the extra heat and protection of a polytunnel/ glasshouse or conservatory, although it will grow outdoors in a sunny, protected garden.
Full of beans:
Find space in your polytunnel for the productive, easy-to-grow climbing French bean variety ‘Cobra’. Just a half-dozen plants grown up bamboo canes will give a steady supply of succulent beans all summer long. Sow now, remembering to protect emerging seedlings from slugs.
Oca, yacon, sweet potato . . . if you read April 11th’s Grow column, you’ll know that as a result of a breeding programme by Kilkenny-based Fitzgerald Nurseries in collaboration with a handful of Irish growers, Lidl will be offering young plants of these useful Inca food crops at stores around the country (limited availability, from May 28th). Johnstown Garden centre will also have plants in stock from the same date.
Recommended suppliers include Dublin-based mrmiddleton.com; Leitrim-based greenvegetableseeds.com; Mayo-based seedaholic.com; Cork-based brownenvelopeseeds.com; British-based realseeds.co.uk and chilternseeds.co.uk; and US-based pandpseed.com, territorialseed.com