Friday, 1 April 2016

Planning and Planting the Edible Garden for Winter - My Meg Ryan Moment

I had a little Meg Ryan moment yesterday, about the garden, and I wasn't even in the garden. A shiver, a surge of happiness.

We have 5 veg garden plots around the large hen run and it was time to move our 7 pretty bantams along, even though the zucchini plant might produce one or 2 more fruit, and the tomato vines were strung with jade beads. (But I dug up the ruby chard (or pink-stemmed silver beet, third picture) that's self-sown, in shades of shining ruby, candy-pink and fairy-floss, and immediately replanted in the new bed where the hens had been scratching and adding their own special fertiliser.) It's getting late in March, we're in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, and I wanted to get some winter veg in the ground while the soil is still warm.
As serendipity often has it, I was digging the new bed over next to the old; my `girls' are happily looking for bugs and worms on the other side of the fence and so I had their company, and their contented low clucking filled my ears. Now and then they come and watch what I'm doing; `anything in that seed packet for me?'; `a plastic bag! Oh the excitement! Any food in it for us?'
Slowly the compost bins are adding to the soil in the best way, and I added a new row of old bricks left here thoughtfully by the old owners 24 years ago. Extra soil from the hen run added more still, on the higher side where the soil is still too shallow; and wood mulch from a huge heap was used to form a topping for the central path.
What to plant? Broad beans - so in go some tea tree stakes, cut from the property, rustic and gnarled, for supports (I'll add string as they grow); and tall wigwams of tea tree stakes for tall-growing snow peas.
It's Easter Sunday so I can't buy veg seedlings, but let's see what seeds I've got in the cupboard.
Let me just say (as I often do) - I care about colour - in the house, and in the garden - passionately. (Especially in the garden, where you can make magical pictures. I also need to mention that those ruby chard (below) weren't planted willy nilly; no, they were placed first burgundy, then candy-pink, then softest-pink in a swish of rainbow colour.)
In the box I found my seeds of `Crimson-flowered Broad Bean' I'd bought from the Diggers Company some time ago; a strong pink with burgundy (below) are the colours I attribute to these flowers. (I don't mind double podding the beans now and then in front of the TV news.) But how did I forget the `Purple Podded Dutch Pea' (top, with `purple-pink flowers followed by purple pods with green peas inside') also from Diggers? I saw this plant at (Digger's) Heronswood last spring - with my sisters - and was delighted, at the time, to discover that they sold seeds of it. With both these precious cultivars, I could only bear to plant seeds from one each of my 2 packets of seeds. (The purple peas (`Dutch Pea') need podding - something I swore I'd never do again as I left the familial home at 19. I think I'll write to UK seed company Chiltern Seeds for their pea `Shiraz', a snow pea with `very dark purple pods' - and purple flowers. No podding (or cooking that turns the pods from dark amethyst to jade) - and how great will this look in a salad!)
I have `Red Russian Kale' (last picture) growing in the garden; I grew it from seed that I imported a while ago along with 3 other varieties (`Dwarf Green Curled', `Scarlet' and `Winterbor' from Chiltern Seeds). It's more pinkish-purple than red, a handsome plant climbing to higher than a metre. I collect quite a lot of seed from the veg garden so it shouldn't have been a surprise to find home-collected seed of this `red' kale. The surprise was my reaction: a little wave of joy. Because I can make a garden picture with all these plants...
and then...while looking for purple-sprouting broccoli `Santee' plants in another bed (found only one, which I'll cut back hard and transplant) to add, to my astonishment (how did I forget this, it can't be a second childhood, not quite, I'm only just over 50) I discovered some gleaming pink-purple Brussels sprouts called `Tasty Red' (below), probably from one plant (which is all I'd plant; J is not a put it mildly), but shaded by Jerusalem artichokes and fallen over, and forming roots where it's touched the ground, and so now I have 6 little plants for my new pink and purple veg patch, cut back hard and looking like fat little candy sticks in a neat curve.
(The label shows Brussels sprouts more red than green but the leaves are green and the leaf veins and tiny heads I'm looking at are purple - what's going on? - and what's in a name? I think the word `red' is short and sharp, an easy moniker to sell. But as well, I think the majority of straight men aren't passionate about colour or aren't good at describing colours...and for some consumers it's a problem. Again and again, I buy a plant (for example) labelled `Ruby [insert interesting word]' to be disappointed with brown flowers (I kid you not) or a dull red or blood red, which scream horribly with my pink, raspberry, cherry and plum tones in the raspberry and silver bed. And recently I gave a talk about bulbs, with a good question afterwards about monbretia (Crocosmia)...but the man asked me about `the red flower you see everywhere in the Dandenong Ranges, like a weed'; yes, orange monbretia, it can be termed no other colour, even by me, who sees red very strongly, and blanches at the sight of a red coat. Please, men, think about colour more carefully!)
So there's four plants with some pink in their stems or flowers, and three with purple in stems, sprouts, flowers or pods.
Too much? Well, there's an edging of dwarf curly kale (below) as well (or will be - from a sowing of home-collected seed, so fresh it germinates beautifully and a variety I like in our frequent omelettes) and normal leeks (are there purple ones? Probably not) between the pea wig-wams, planted in the easiest way imaginable: by placing a mature seed head (from a nearby gone-to-seed leek plant) onto the soil and giving it a scrunch; that's my kind of lazy gardening. There's also some `ordinary' green snow peas. (Two varieties of peas sown just increases the chances of germination and peas to eat sooner, I reckon.) The leaves of the ruby chard are a deep, almost forest green to tie it all down.
Later, I am chatting to 3 relatives and my mind wanders. Suddenly I have an idea that's maybe been niggling at the edges of my thoughts all day. Chives! Ordinary chives have mauve flowers in those pretty globe-shaped heads (second picture). (Garlic chives have white flowers and won't work here for the effect I want.)  Have I got room for chives as well? Let's push back the leek seeds and pop in some chive seedlings nearer the front along here. 
As I dig I collect old buried seed labels, and I see `Mustard Greens' written on one, and my mind sees the handsome green leaves, made bronze-purple where the sun's rays touch them - too dark?; and is the 4m by 2.5m veg bed getting mighty full? Heck, yes. Maybe for another bed another time. Perhaps one with near-black Tuscan Kale, and red or orange flowers. 
I'm happy with my little plan.
A feast for the eyes and the taste buds in green, pink and purple. And, oh, how satisfying.

I can't stuff another plant in; even though I'm tempted as I find in a catalogue: red raddichio and `red' oak-leaf lettuce (both perhaps too red/russet) and carrot `Deep Purple' which `retains its deep colour all the way through to the to the core' (would the colour bleed up to the leaf stalks? Probably). Let's not forget how lovely eggplants, opal basil and purple beans would be, too, if this wasn't a winter planting. Purple-bronze dill, too, if it wasn't a weedy plant here.
Or can I? Cardoon (globe artichoke) `Rouge d'Alger' (`Heirloom') with blushing stalks (and silver leaves for accent and those purple flowers too) is just too to the seed merchant. (Or will just the one or three plants I can squash in look silly?) Diggers, too, sell seeds of `Purple Artichoke' `from Northern Italy...[with] fat fleshy hearts' of pink-violet and green.
This sounds like the edible garden is going to be thought out far more carefully in future, doesn't it? J sighs a little as he realises that of course, in future, the veg garden always has to be beautiful. No, I say, just pretty. 
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (


  1. I'm having a Meg Ryan moment too. I want what you're having, a wonderful time in the vegie garden and a colour coordinated one too.

  2. That's great! It's so much fun. (I found a purple-head artichoke in a pot so that went in too, near the back, the silver leaves will be a lovely contrast.) What colours are in your veg plot?