Chris Palmer

Will I ever learn? You would think so after over forty years of marriage. There are times when honesty is best avoided. It was back in January. Our house had been full over the Christmas and New Year festivities. Inevitably, however well prepared we had been, there were lots of leftovers. My wife prepared a sumptuous turkey, ham and leek pie. Fantastic pastry. It looked wonderful, almost too good to eat. I had been dispatched to the freezer in the garage to find some ice cream for our pudding and found, by chance, some broad beans, picked and frozen last July. They were duly added to the meal. Extended family members returned to enjoy our hospitality. We all tucked in. A good night was enjoyed by all.

Asked later about my favourite part of the meal, in an idle moment as we sat back and adjusted our belts, I answered with perhaps too much haste.

“Well, it has to be the broad beans.”

“You are joking, of course.”

“A taste of last year. Sown from seed, picked at the right time, and frozen within an hour. They were perfection.”

It did not appear to be the anticipated answer. In fact, a stony silence ensued. Offering to wash up for the rest of the week was only the first step on a long road towards redemption.

The episode has come to my mind because mid to late March is when I set about sowing broad beans inside in readiness for planting out in April. My approach to vegetable growing is probably familiar to all gardeners who have toiled and experimented with the huge variety of vegetables available. I now grow what I love to eat and what I feel reasonably confident in growing. My experience suggests that broad beans are reasonably easy to grow and can suit any size of garden. My family love them. They freeze effectively. There are a good number of varieties available to purchase in garden centres. In a vegetable plot, I would recommend Crimson Flower, whereas in a grow bag, in which I have grown them without difficulty, I would use ‘The Sutton’, a variety which does not grow to a great height and is more manageable.

To start them off, whilst they can be sown directly into the soiI, I prefer to use either fibre pots which can in due course be planted into the ground, or used yoghurt pots into which drainage holes have been made. My own preference is to create a mix of all-purpose compost and perlite and to use this as a medium for sowing the seeds. Pushing the seeds about an inch into the medium I put the pots on a warm windowsill until they have germinated, and then I move them to a cooler spot until they are an inch or so high, and plant them out on a mild day. From there onwards, following the instructions on the packet, you should have a good harvest of yummy beans by early June.

Windowsills are a vital part of my gardening life. Let me explain. Like many enthusiastic gardeners, I wish I had a greenhouse, but sadly I don’t. As a consequence, I need to use our house as if it is one. This can be challenging and requires understanding from all residents. In the south facing bathroom and spare bedroom, by late March I will have a sequence of pots of broad beans, mangetout peas and sweet peas. When the shoots start to peep through, I need to move them to a cooler, north facing windowsill, so that the growth can continue slowly in readiness for them to be planted outside.

Unfortunately, the one north facing windowsill has been clogged up with my seed potatoes, chitting happily away, as described in our last edition. Time then to do something with the latter.

I grow tatties in both my vegetable plot and in containers. Last year, without any doubt, the container-grown tatties looked and tasted the best. My approach is to use a large pot with good drainage holes. I fill it up with a mixture of soil and compost. Depending on the size of the pot, I place two or three chitted potatoes about a foot apart, and then cover with an inch or so of the mixture. I water well, and to retain the moisture, cover with a mulch of organic matter.

When we lived in Lancashire, we lived close to a mushroom farm from which gardeners could buy spent mushroom compost. I would apply that to my tatty pots as a mulch. In South Ayrshire, living close to the coast, I use seaweed, a nutrient-rich material favoured by farmers in Ayrshire for at least the last two centuries. As the plants grow, I keep adding more of the soil and compost mixture until the plants produce flowers. In the early weeks I am mindful of the possibility of a late frost and if the weather forecast suggests a very cold night, I cover the pots with a plastic sheet.

My favourite potato for taste is Charlotte and I would hope that the harvest would be ready in about twelve weeks. By early June, my ambition is to present for a summer lunch, as a minimum, freshly dug new potatoes, mangetouts, broad beans with maybe an omelette. Perhaps, if the weather has been kind, the first bunch of sweet peas in a vase on the table.

Looking back to my early life, I wish I had talked to my parents about their individual interests and knowledge of gardening. In their relatively small plots, they toiled happily but failed to purposefully pass on their enthusiasm. I could see, however, the pleasure they derived from their endeavours, and it never occurred to me to live in a flat or a house without a garden. When I think of my father, I remember rows of runner beans and seemingly eating this vegetable every day during the summer. In her latter years my mother became very keen on flower arranging. I asked her late in her life what her favourite flower was and without hesitation she stated that it was a rose. I have to admit that I struggle with that choice. It seems that so many things can go wrong with them, but I persevere if only as an act of loyalty to her. In the same way, my family has had to eat through a glut of runner beans every year, some of which we freeze, but with disappointing results, certainly not as good as broad beans.

My new year outburst of honesty has been forgiven or forgotten. I should, of course, have remembered my favourite Just William story, ‘William’s Truthful Christmas’. Remember it? Lady Atkinson comes to visit his family. Mindful of the vicar’s sermon that morning about the vice of lying, William causes a storm by saying that a portrait of their guest ‘isn’t as fat as she is in real life.’ Family mayhem ensues. It still makes me chuckle.

See you in our next edition, when I will be waxing lyrical about my favourite flower, the dahlia.