VEGETABLES


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.

 

Cabbages
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. 

Cucumber 
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.

 
 

Swiss Chard and Spinach 

Sowing direct is rather hit and miss so sow indoors at the end of March and plant out in May. Peat modules have

proved unsatisfactory and larger pots take up too much space, so we’ve returned to bare root transplanting. This isn’t ideal either as the larger leaves need to be stripped back, but it does provide an early and very refreshing salad crop. These plants require the sun to thrive when they can produce a vast crop of large leaves and thick white stems. Chard isn’t as hardy as perpetual spinach and will only survive minus 2-3 before the stems start going brown. They also need protection from the sparrows who seem to have taken a liking to them. For ages this was our main leaf crop but after some lean years we’re not so sure and in the light of the splendid cabbage revival, will probably be relegated to a couple of small beds.


Leeks (var. Autumn Giant) 
Leeks fall into two categories; fast growing soft and slender autumn types, and slow growing hardier and chunkier
winter types. What we really need is a fast growing hardy type, but the Autumn King just about suffices. They are notable for being the first crop to be sown and the last to be harvested. Sow into the greenhouse beds the first week of March and then fattened up with muckwater for a few weeks, before planting out at the end of May. The beds need thorough preparation to accommodate the deep dibber. The transplanting is the biggest job of the year as maybe fifteen hundred are lifted from the greenhouse and planted out one-by-one. They are nevertheless a reliable crop and harvest from August to December.
 

Lettuces (vars. Red Salad Bowl, Cocarde, Buttercrunch, Little
Gem, Tom Thumb) 
Sowings start in early March and continue every fortnight until the end of July, hopefully harvesting until well into the autumn. Unfortunately, regardless of the carefully co-ordinated successional planting, when the conditions are just right all the lettuces seem to start bolting at the same time. This means a balance of harvesting methods is required. Sometimes cut-and-come-again varieties and sometimes whole heads, depending on which is bolting the fastest. Also the smaller hearted varieties like Tom Thumb tend to rot in a wet spell so it’s important to keep things flexible. The beds are kept barren for most of the year so there’s nothing out there for the slugs to eat and they’ve usually gone elsewhere by the time we start planting. They could do well in the brick cold frames once we’re better organised, but the problem is that dozens of flowerpots are placed there for the winter and the slugs seem to find their way in stuck to the bottom. This can be extremely tedious.



Marrows (var. Parthenon) 

2015 saw the Year of the Marrow. One final huge crop grown in the Old Greenhouse before the remaining glass came off and they were terrific. They could have been melons and the kitchen loved them. It begs the question why on earth pick them as courgettes in the first place? Sadly though last year they struggled to get going after the cold spring and petered out early. Interestingly there isn’t an English word for baby marrow. They’re sown under glass in the third week of May and planted out after the 7th June. Crop from the middle of August for a good few weeks weather permitting and store if needs be. Something else you can’t do with courgettes. Next year they at least deserve a spot in the high sided cold frames.  

Parsley (vars. Moss Curled and Plain) 
Parsley germinates in the heated boxes without too much difficulty and planted in the greenhouse where it does fine. Last year they were planted out in the cold frame but were disappointing. Next year they’ll get a bed in the greenhouse all to themselves. They also give an additional early crop the following spring.
 

Peas (var. Sugarsnap) 
This is now usually only a token sowing. In the past we have had a few huge crops, but the flocks of sparrows
seem to be aware now of what is going on and they’ll happily ransack the entire crop. The only option is a high net cage which is a bit of a palaver, and they still have a habit of getting in and then getting caught up. It’s a great pity.
 

Peppers (var. Cayenne) 
One of the first sowings of the season, growth tends to be slow after germination and they need to be kept a close eye on. Planted out in the greenhouse whenever convenient, this variety does extremely well through horizontal netting and interestingly doesn’t seem to mind the overcast conditions. In the Old Greenhouse they sometimes produced a huge harvest. Drying has also been very successful clipped together on the overhead wires, or as Rinpoche suggested, laying flat on nets.

 

Potatoes (var. Desiree )
A 25kg sack of small spuds is chitted in the Oakhouse for a couple of months and they are then planted out on the 24th May, two weeks before the last frost. This always sounds late but earlier than this is too much of a gamble and can lead to frantic earthing up at the end of a busy day in June. Despite spraying with Bordeaux the crop invariably succumbs to blight, but as long as it doesn’t begin too early it’s a toss-up whether it really makes that much difference. In a dry year the spuds are smaller and probably need a good flooding before harvest, but with the wet conditions the tubers are usually a good size. The main problem with blight is that it’s messy. The rotting tops have to be gathered up meticulously and carted away by the safest route. It smells unpleasant and the spores can easily be walked into the greenhouse and accidently knobble the tomatoes. So be careful. The first new potatoes are dug in time for the annual tea party in mid-August, with the maincrop following in September. Desiree is a first class variety with waxy yellow flesh that stays firm when boiled and has a full nutty flavour. We’ve been growing them for thirty years. 

Tomatoes (var. Ailsa Craig) 
This old Scottish variety is an exceptional cropper with a lovely old fashioned flavour. 2015 was the first year not grown under a leaky old roof. They clearly revelled in the dry blight-free atmosphere and were still standing magnificently into November. Sow mid March and plant in the greenhouse beds towards the end of April when the chance of a severe chill has passed. The trick seems to be refraining from watering them once they’ve gone in, and hold your nerve until they start to fruit in a couple of months! They may start drooping in hot weather, but are usually all right by the morning. Gulp. They clearly don’t mind the grey skies and sometimes harvest from the first week of August. Ripen them up in the dark. 

Turnips (vars. Golden Ball, Snowball, Purple Milan, Marian Swede)

This is possibly the finest vegetable of the whole year. The Goldens in particular deserve a special mention and roasted they are matchless. The leaves are also perfect for soups. Technically they’re the swollen stem of a cabbage and have to be grown in the safety of the wire netting. They also benefit from a liquid comfrey feed. The Snowballs are very popular with the Tibetans and have more of a radishy flavour. Rinpoche used to eat them raw.

Care has to be taken to ensure these are picked within twelve weeks otherwise they go woody.  Alternatively they could feature in the new greenhouses as a quick winter crop? The Swedish turnips are the hardiest of the lot and stand outside well into the winter. After harvesting they also store quite well in a clamp, which is the old fashioned technique of burying them in dry sand where they keep fresh and firm for the winter. One year Rinpoche gave us some Tibetan turnips seeds but they weren’t for eating, he wanted them as medicine for Uncle Sherab’s knees. Curiously in Western medicine, a cabbage leaf strapped to a rheumatic knee also has demonstrable benefits.



GREENHOUSE FRUIT

Grapes













 

The Old Greenhouse has now been dismantled and a new structure will be built around the vine, whereupon, hopefully, it will carry on where it left off. The vine may lookancient but is in fact only 30 years old. It was originally trained along the front windows but this wasn’t too successful. It is said that the energy in a vine goes to the highest point and so, after a consultation with the I Ching, we tried it over the arches. From that point on the vine was unstoppable and very soon there were 400-500 bunches hanging sumptuously overhead. This wasn’t too far behind the legendary vine at Hampton Court and drew many admirers. It required September sunshine to ripen the fruit so was usually in luck, though during a damp spell the bunches could start to get mildewy. We tried thinning them with scissors, which sounds easy enough but fiddling about above your head while balancing precariously on a step ladder, was just too exasperating. The doors and windows also had to be netted to keep out a family of scruffy bald headed blackbirds, who given half a chance would have stripped the entire crop in days. 

The gradual dilapidation of the Old Greenhouse kept the old trunk constantly soaking wet but the flakey bark seemed to shrug it off and though looking rather battered, had powered on regardless. This summer the vine was allowed to flourish ‘outside’ but was pruned right down to a stump for the winter and is covered with a large drum to keep it dry. How long we can keep this up remains to be seen, but so far so good. 
 

Peaches 
A little trickier, these do require summer sun and in the past have been successful, but in recent years the overcast conditions weren’t too helpful and only produced disappointingly plain fruits. Also the tree could have been getting old. The new warmer Peach House may improve things so we’ll probably try one again. 
 

Figs 
The fig tree was planted in a sturdy tub at the back of the Old Greenhouse in 1988. All was going well and the annual harvest had reached an impressive 20 fruits, until it burst its container and thereafter there were none. The old tree was to be a casualty of the rebuilding, so we took dozens of cuttings and hope to plant a replacement in due course.
 


GARDEN FRUIT 

Raspberries 
These grow locally in the wild which is always encouraging, though picking has to be quick to beat  the blackbirds. Summer and autumn varieties spread the harvest over a longer period and the leaves are popular in herb teas.
 

Black Currants 
We really should take more care of these bushes as they are prolific. There are plenty of them in the garden and
the crop makes an excellent vitamin rich syrup to fight off winter colds.  

Gooseberries 
Not the most popular fruit but survives up here despite the occasional swarm of sawfly. These can be easily swept off with a broom. 
 
Rhubarb 
Well suited to the conditions providing hundreds of sturdy stems until mid-July. 


HERBS


The Herb Garden was laid out in front of the greenhouse with a traditional brickwork pattern of small plots divided up with paving slabs. This is the best way to keep the various crops separate and keeps them from invading one another. The beds comprise apple mint, peppermint, spearmint and chocolate mint, marjoram, lemon balm, sage, thyme, dill, coriander, vervain, elecampane, valerian, sweet cicely, comfrey, borage, St John’s wort, yarrow, chives, chamomile and calendula. These are picked and dried from the end of June, preferably when the rain has held off for 48 hours, though sometimes this isn’t possible and we’ve had to take a chance. By August the dew tends to be too heavy and the window has once again closed. An annual crop of basil is also grown in the greenhouses and, if we’re on the case, sometimes two crops.

                                                                              

FLOWERS



AKONG RINPOCHE MEMORIAL

To commemorate the life of Akong Rinpoche we hope to plant 1,000 bulbs in the garden every year. Rinpoche was a regular visitor to the garden and came down most days to see how we were getting on. He often recommended that people would be better off digging the garden. Hopefully some of the bulbs will become established and build up great colonies for the future.

Last autumn we selected some spring bulbs to bring colour to all of our lives just when the winter seems to be overstaying its welcome. White daffodils and snowdrops have been planted along the front edge of the half-moon bed up by the courtyard, and across the path dwarf tete-a-tete yellow daffodils have been scattered over the terracing and around the Sundial Garden. The stone well-head has been filled up with golden winter aconites, there are maroon and mauve tulips and alliums along the main path and down amongst the ruins, plus a few other colonies of anemones, crocuses, irises, muscari grape hyacinths and oxalis wood sorrel.

Click here to find out how we cope with some of the creatures that visit the Garden.