Gardening for food historians

Growing up, my father had a rhyme he used to quote at the first sniffs of spring:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is.

I can’t get it out of my head now, whenever the first signs of spring occur – and then at the second, third, fourth etc. it’s been going round in circles since the first bulbs started to sprout. And come April, I tend to go into a gardening frenzy. It’s usually a month with work gaps in for me, so I can go and enthusiastically plant seeds and revel in having permanently muddy fingernails. I’m aware, by the way, that much of what I plant will fail miserably, and I’ll end up buying plug plants anyway, but the joy lies partly in the work and partly in the hope. And now I have a bigger garden, I might eventually become a better gardener. I fear my problem is that I garden as I cook, with only the slightest regard for the recipe (planting guidelines), and a sort of gung ho attitude to little things like amounts (e.g. of watering) and conditions (ovens, room temperatures, soil types, amount of sun….). This year I have bought two brilliant and complementary books; Mark Diacono’s The New Kitchen Garden, and James Wong’s Growing for Flavour, and am trying to consult them before I plant stuff, and not after it’s dead and buried in the compost heap. We shall see…

So, if you want to garden with an eye to historic cooking, what kind of things do you plant? My criteria were simple: useful, especially for public demos and/or TV (producers always want unobtainable things out of season); pretty, as the garden isn’t very big; tasty, because life is too short to eat risotto; unobtainable through normal sources (market, supermarket, friends, the web). Oh, and preferably easy to grow and requires little maintenance. I tend to favour perennials as well, not least as they often have a longer period reach and are therefore more versatile.

My eventual list (and it may well yet grow, and will certainly change next year):

Trees: quince, medlar, Norfolk Biffin apple, Pitmarston Pineapple apple. (The latter two are to be trained as espaliers. I now have a hankering after a fruit arch with a pear and another apple, for which I hold the below illustration directly responsible).

Pear arch for a cottage garden, from The New Century Book of Gardening

Soft fruit: entirely unhistorical but practical thornless blackberry. There’s a hedge down the road for the evil attacking type. Red, black and white currant. Gooseberry, barberry, grape and strawberries (these last failing to do anything at the time of writing).

Herbs and green stuff: cardoon, erigno, sea kale, mallow, angelica, English mace, hyssop, clary sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lots of types of mint, comfrey, salad burnett, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, licorice, hop (still apparently dead), rocket, purslane, chard, rose of edible petal and hip type, good king Henry, tansy, sorrel, wild garlic (boat out on survival), borage, rue, skirret, globe artichoke, and does rhubarb count here?

Veg: Jerusalem and Chinese artichoke, tomatoes (yes, I know they are fruit), squashes of various kinds, aubergine, peas, turnips, salsify, broccoli including the epic looking walking stick broccoli (couldn’t resist), Brussels sprouts (post 1830, but hey, I still like them), runner beans, chilli.

It looks like loads (and I want to put a morello cherry on the front of the house as well, not to mention a damson up a fence), but I only have one of each, or a small patch of each, in some cases. And I’m hoping it’ll fuel many a happy historic cooking bender later in the year. Oh, and there’s not a lot in the whole space which is not edible. With any luck, most or even all of it will grow, and I can report back. Treat this, therefore, as a taster of what’s to come…and if you’ve any suggestions of your own, bring them on!

Sea Kale, before I ate it


Cardoon, in all its sculptural glory – and YES, it grows under leylandii

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