Rinpoche was a firm believer in making good use of the land and back in the early days it was his vision to grow crops up and down the valley. He was keen to build greenhouses and cold frames and also had plans for a huge glass Bodhi House full of birds and butterflies. These were heady times and would have meant taking the giant step of a heated greenhouse, but back then anything seemed possible. Perhaps now our aspirations are a little more modest. This is hill farming country after all, and more suited to sheep rearing and coniferous forests. An old farmer once said that oats had never been grown in the valley and to this day you still have to travel a long way to find a market garden.
The conditions aren’t ideal but with local knowledge and a bit of luck, there is usually a reasonable harvest. We endeavour to keep things simple. Crop failure can be awfully disappointing, a feeling rubbed in each time you walk past a barren plot, until autumn finally comes along and clears everything away for another year. So consequently a few reliable hardy crops have tended to dominate the growing plan. It always feels good to bring in the harvest by the barrowful, whatever it is. Each year we try a few new varieties and sometimes they prove successful, but generally the majorities of the crops are the tried and tested ones.
Climate predictions have suggested a gradual warming with an increase of rainfall in the west and this is certainly evident here. The nineties saw generally mild winters with bulbs often coming up at Christmas and the tales of snowdrifts blocking the road seemingly a thing of the past. But it’s the summer where there is the greatest concern. Long damp spells and limited sunshine simply doesn’t bode well for rich harvests. All this culminated in the Great Flood of 5th July 2012, which saw water pouring off the hills and streaming down the paths. Even the old shed was knee deep in floodwater. If this trend should continue the need for damp resistant crops requiring little sunshine will become compelling. Gardening books and seed catalogues generally cater for middle England, with some references to hardy crops capable of withstanding cold weather, but there is seldom any mention of crops capable of withstanding very wet conditions.
We seem to be at the cutting edge of these changes and would welcome recommendations of any suitable varieties with good damp resistance, particularly old Scottish varieties. We would also be willing to co-operate in selected trials.
Most of the crops go to the Samye kitchens, with the rest being sold to visitors where the produce is usually harvested on demand. Escorting one lady amongst the rows of lettuces she enquired, ‘Are they fresh?’ A simple aberration, but people are genuinely surprised to be given the opportunity to select vegetables in their natural habitat. Another visitor was unaware that leeks had a large green edible flag and had previously only known the white stem. Sadly it seems many people have little experience of fresh, tasty organic produce and are more accustomed to the sanitised supermarket offerings. They’re desperate to strip off the outer leaves, peel the skin, and cut off anything that looks knobbly, all in the quest for the perfect vegetable. Having grown a magnificent organic vegetable it is a pity to think that by the time it’s cleaned up, there’s hardly anything left.
A final note about our crops: The project has always endeavoured to sow bio-dynamically, i.e. by the phases of the moon. It’s difficult to say exactly what difference this makes but usually receives a sympathetic ear. One incidental outcome is that it does provides a natural rhythm to the successional sowing, which is nice. We’ve dabbled with the preparations which are similar to the May Bruce QR composting formula and which seem very interesting, but have yet to cement this into the annual routine.
Anyway, these are the main crops grown up here:
Broad Beans (variety Witkiem)
Broad beans are one of those crops that bought in the shop just never taste the same as homegrown. Freshly picked and podded they take some beating. Last year the kitchens here treated us to some delicious lightly steamed beans. Definitely worth a go they’re ideal for blanching and freezing in small bags, to be brought out in the winter when the garden is bare. Apparently there’s a phrase in Dutch along the lines of, ‘he’s the kind of chap who pods his own beans’. It’s a nice job on a Sunday afternoon.
In spring you really know the season is up and running when you can start bashing in rows of bean posts. Sown
directly, the emerging bean plants do need some protection from the crows who seem to relish yanking them out the ground. Visually this is a very pleasing crop with full beds of tall bushy plants and attractive white and black
flowers that flutter in the breeze like butterflies. After a disturbing sequence of six wet years, where the crop had twice been completely wiped out by the chocolate spot fungus, we experimented with a number of different varieties. Admittedly 2013 wasn’t the best year for analysing fungal infections as the sun blazed away, but there was enough evidence to suggest the Witkiem beans had the greatest resistance. 2015 was generally a poor year but the Witkiems excelled with a huge crop of large pods of four or five good sized pale beans. They also did well in 2016 though there was a small outbreak of chocolate in the heart of the patch, suggesting maybe a fire-break in the middle might provide the required ventilation.
Runner Beans (vars. Butler, Enorma Elite)
Sow third week of May in the greenhouse. If they’re sown too early they get horribly entangled with one another
while waiting to be planted out after the last frost, i.e. 7th June. They are trained up six foot strings which from a distance resemble a harp. They are vulnerable to a chill breeze but should, with a bit of luck, crop from mid-August until mid-September, once again frost permitting. Runner beans used to be very popular with elderly ladies, but are now sadly going out of fashion. The past couple of years haven’t been great, hitting the buffers before they even got properly started, so we’ll probably sow less next time and concentrate on the more robust broad beans.
Beetroot (vars. Forono, Boltardy, Detroit Globe)
Germination can be a little bit hit and miss sometimes. Some years the rows are thick with seedlings, others they’re patchy. Sown directly outside in May could have something to do with it due to the sharp changes in temperature. This being the case they have recently found a berth in one of the long cold frames, or even the modern trend of sowing into modules to be planted out later. They certainly benefit from some warmth and a good comfrey feed at the end of July.
Back in the days of the peacocks we used to build a cage to protect the vulnerable crops. This had wire netting sides, strings over the top and king posts in the middle. It felt like the circus had come to town. This was fine in the summer when there was plenty of food around to keep them occupied, but as autumn set in and the pickings were meagre, they’d find a way to flap in and then tear everything to shreds. Now in these blissful peafowl free times, winter cabbages are back on the menu. They’ve made a splendid return and seem happier than ever in the
overcast conditions. This year the purple January King was probably the prize winner with huge outer leaves and tight solid heads. These are organically grown so don’t need the chemicals washing off, but just to be on the safe
side they probably need a good rinse for the bugs. They really were quite a picture amongst the ruins, interspersed with lovely green headed varieties and surrounded by orange calendulas and blue cosmos.
Since the demise of the Slice King variety, poor harvests have seen this crop reduced to a token effort. They really need sunshine so should a suitable variety exist which doesn’t mind the gloom, this would be welcomed. Admittedly conditions in the greenhouse weren’t ideal so maybe when this is rebuilt we’ll have another go.