Gardening without a garden

We are very lucky here to have a bit of land around our house that allows us to garden. Over the years, the lawn has completely disappeared as we have built raised beds, constructed a fruit cage, built a greenhouse and (the final straw) started keeping chickens. We have expanded into spaces originally considered unsuitable for growing and now have designs on the small patch out the front.

As I write, I am, however, conscious of people who do not have any land. People who live in flats and apartments that may just have a balcony or even only a window sill, perhaps not even that.  For a while Mr Snail-of-happiness worked in Reading, where we rented a flat for him to live in. The only room that had a useable window sill was in the kitchen, but it was tiled and got quite a lot of sun, so I took him several sweet pepper plants and chillies, and they grew happily there for a couple of years, providing him with some fresh produce, even if only a little. In addition, he had some herbs in pots… a lovely way to add fresh flavours to your cooking.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

However, things like peppers can be a little bit daunting for a complete beginner and, if you want to grow them from seed, it’s best to start them off at the beginning of the year, so they start to get long days as the plants mature. What if you want to start growing something right now? In that case (whenever you may be reading this, and whichever hemisphere you are in) I can suggest nothing better than oriental leaves. Buy yourself a selection of seeds (you can even get mixed packs), fill a seed tray with compost, sow your seeds, cover with a little more compost, place them on a tray to catch any water, water them and put them on a window sill or table in a light place. Keep the compost moist and wait for your crop. First, you will get heart-shaped seed leaves, then the plants will start to grow proper leaves which you can harvest once each plant has a few of them. Snip the leaves off and more will grow.

Baby leaves like theses are not strongly flavoured and are ideal for salads, but can also be used in stir fries, or wilted into a risotto a minute or two before cooking is finished. Next time you go to the supermarket, look how expensive bags of baby salad leaves are and this should convince you that the activity is worthwhile!

Seed compost isn’t full of nutrients, so the leaves might be a bit yellow after a time and, if so, a bit of plant food is in order. Eventually your plants will become ‘worn out’, so after a couple of weeks, plant another tray to get going whilst you are using one… this way you can have a succession of fresh leaves throughout the year even without a garden.

Chilli festival

In this strange year for crops it appears that we are about to enjoy a bumper crop of chillies – a visit to the greenhouse reveals a veritable chilli forest, including healthy plants with flowers and fruit in abundance. None are ripe yet, but they are starting to change colour.

Mainly Lemon drop – you can see the green unripe fruit amongst the leaves

I have been trialling varieties for a number of years now, and have finally identified ones that do well in my greenhouse here in west Wales. I only grow two*, both from The Real Seed Catalogue. The first is Lemon Drop – a slender fruit that ripens to a beautiful lemon yellow colour and has a reasonable amount of heat and a slightly citrus flavour. This variety is good for drying for use over the winter.

A forest of chillies – purple flowers on Alberto’s Locoto

The second is not, in fact, a different variety but a different species, it’s called Alberto’s Locoto (not sure of the scientific name). Alberto’s Locoto is a great plant – it’s a perennial and so you can keep it going for a number of years. When you do need more you can simply save seeds yourself –  because it is a separate species, it doesn’t cross with any of the other capsicums and so it breeds true. It is a lovely plant – hairy leaves, purple flowers and bright red fruit when ripe. And finally, the chillies are good to eat – they reliably have a decent amount of heat, unlike some chillies I have grown in the past.

Which reminds me… it’s worth noting that all capsicums/peppers/chillies are perennial and, with a little care, they will survive over the winter. Like many vegetables, we treat them as annuals and replant each year, but I have had some very successful crops of peppers in a second or even third year. You can either keep them in the greenhouse (as long as it doesn’t get too cold) or bring them into the house or conservatory (if you have one). Just keeping a couple going is worthwhile if you don’t have much indoor space, as they will crop earlier the following year than newly planted individuals.

-oOo-

*In fact it’s not entirely true that we only have the two varieties; we also have the Hungarian Wax peppers, which we are now referring to as Russian Roulette peppers. We were given the seed and will never grow them again, because their flavour is so unpredictable. I had been led to believe that they started sweet and got hot as they ripened up. This is a lie. Some are hot, some are sweet, the age, colour and plant of origin are not correlated with the flavour at all. As a result Mr Snail-of-happiness and I had the hottest risotto (possibly the hottest dish) I have ever made last week because I naively put two green Hungarian Wax peppers into it without tasting them first. It was impossible to taste any of the other ingredients and we needed some chilled Sauvignon to help us recover! (what an excuse)

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