Since resolving to maximise the food output of the garden (within the limits of the space currently available) I have realised there are quite a few aspects to consider:
- I cannot expect all the food from the garden to look like it has come from a shop. Appearance is not what counts. It is vital that it is wholesome and nutritious but it doesn’t have to look the best, particularly before cooking. Thus the leaf beet leaves I garnered a couple of weeks ago had been well and truly nibbled, nay munched – probably by slugs (ugh). They had huge chunks taken out and some were more rib than leaf; however once chopped and cooked you could not tell and they tasted fantastic.
- I try to eat as much as possible of each plant. Not ever being able to abide waste I have always eaten the green ends of spring onions and leeks and the leaves and stalks of cauliflowers. So with perennial kales I try the stems as well as the leaves; some are okay if the outer edge is peeled off, others are just too fibrous. If the rocket is going to flower I eat the flower stalks as well as the leaves.
- I need to be aware of what is growing all the time and when to pick or harvest it to make the best of the plant. Leaving a perennial kale to grow bigger and bigger leaves only to find that they have actually become inedibly tough or actually started to moulder and the opportunity to eat that leaf has passed. I am now getting better acquainted with my plants and have a better understanding of when to leave and when to pick.
- I need to plan the polyculture patches using plants that I like and that like the garden, that will grow well and produce a good harvest. Experience is vital as is record keeping and I am thinking through what this means in practice.
- I also need to plan to maximise the seasons. Food through the leaner times of winter and early spring is in a way more valuable than that which grows more readily through the summer.
- I have tried to get some food out of the garden each day, and there has certainly been something that I could have harvested and eaten each day. One difficulty that has occurred is again a planning thing – if I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark I have no chance to get anything from the garden, except by torchlight. In practice this doesn’t often happen! So I have to remember to pick plenty of wild rocket, land cress, lamb’s lettuce and three cornered leek to adorn my lunch time salads for three days on the day before I go to work. The same goes for leafy greens to go with the evening meal. Even though the best intentions don’t always happen I am determined to get into new habits eventually.
- The other mistake I have nearly made but just got away with was not harvesting all the oca before we had some proper frost. Earlier this week there were several days of hard frost that lasted all day in the north facing part of the garden. With oca plants lingering there I was all of a sudden really worried about the little tubers as many are not far below ground and I did not know how susceptible they would be to frost. The weather was warmer today and I managed to get most of them out this morning, with a few more to go tomorrow. I was really missing the cold, bright, sunny and clear days of proper winter, but I must not risk the oca crop again like that.
- I have to guard against being lazy and leaving things that could be picked. The wild strawberries go on for many months, but yield very small pickings at any one time. Even though I do love furtling about amongst their leaves for tiny berries it can sometimes feel a bit slow going when I am busy. But to make the most of everything does mean everything. Likewise I did not manage to get out and pick up all the apples that fell from the trees which I normally do. We stew those that are damaged or nibbled so as not to let them go to waste and whilst we did get some last autumn it was by no means all of them.
There is clearly more to making the most of the garden than I perhaps thought at first. Being aware, planning, using things to their best advantage, not being too lazy to pick things – it all takes time. However the advantage I have is that there is relatively little cultivating to do. I don’t dig, there is very little in the way of “weeding” and other maintenance tasks – giving all the more time to enjoy and to harvest, and then to eat!