The vegetable garden is caught between two hard places. The summer’s drought was ruinous for lettuce, spinach and leafy greens. The cost of heating a greenhouse has skyrocketed, making aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and indoor tomatoes out of reach. In June, Kew Gardens opened a new space called Edible Science, which aims to “work towards more sustainable production processes”. I just checked.
It stands on the site of Kew’s old walled kitchen garden which was once home to King George III. provided with food. Our eco-king Charles III will appreciate his ground rules. It follows a no-dig policy. Like the King’s Garden at Highgrove, it avoids the use of chemical herbicides. Soon there will be a shelter with an edible green roof made of alpine strawberries, thyme and nasturtium, whose peppery leaves are good in salads.
‘Apiaries’ are placed around the garden and some of the cabbages are left to be sown so that Kew’s scientists can examine their pollen. Some of the beds tie into existing research at Kew, whether it’s on food crops in Mexico or the types of beans that are best at resisting drought.
This edible science area is another beautiful addition to the garden that visitors will love to inspect. It stands near the recently created Agius Evolution Garden, which shows the evolution of plants on our planet over the millions of years since life began. Like the Evolution Garden, it is the result of generous donations. The budget was £280,000 to incorporate a new hard-surfaced pavement pattern made from sustainable Cedec gravel.
Like me, the planners believe that vegetables are best grown in beds that rise above the level of the existing soil. Beds with porous borders were built on it. Because Kew has an abundance of home-grown shredded compost, it was tractored around to the vegetable beds and dumped to a depth of at least 1 foot above the level of the old soil. The costs go far beyond the normal gardener’s budget, but the principle of increasing beds and laying new soil is certainly not.
At Kew, the capital budget must cover the gardeners’ expenses to sustain the project. It’s also paid for water points in the corners of each bed, where leaky hoses can be attached and run at floor level for an hour at a time. They are the most economical way to water vegetables, especially in a garden that depends on a full-time gardener and volunteer.
With Helena Dove, Manager of the Vegetable Garden, I checked out the progress since I started nine months ago. The visual impact of kitchen gardeners is so fast. While my recently planted Hellebore struggled to survive dry weather, Kew’s edible garden has taken on vertical lines and a green and jungle-like appearance. Curtains of gourds and edible vines hang from metal arches.
I was impressed by wooden panels, each with five rows of slats, which are placed diagonally over one of the beds like cold frames: They form supports for climbing cucumbers planted underneath, about 3 feet long.
The Roman Emperor Tiberius had his cucumbers grown on mobile racks that could be placed where the sun was strongest early in the year. At Kew, like many vegetables in the Edible Science garden, the cucumbers are grown under glass and then planted next to these frames in early summer. On their slats cucumber Mini Munch and Bedfordshire Prize are growing happily: a good source for seeds for next year’s crop is dtbrownseeds.co.uk, which even lists one called Socrates.
How have the eco-rules proven themselves in practice? Dove explained to my group of fellow gardeners how she burns off existing weeds with a flame gun and never uses chemical weed killers. She still plucks the bindweed stalks by hand when they resurface.
I would never be so dogmatic. A well-aimed dab of glyphosate on the leaves and all those bindweed would have been harmlessly dead long ago: glyphosate kills through contact with leaves, not the soil. To stop weeds on the Cedec trails I bet chemicals will have to be used anyway.
Dove and her team never dig the ground either: “The world,” she tells me, “does fine without us.” I’m a veteran of a type of digging called the bastard digging: it depends on what you’re in the meanwhile want to start with the world.
Overall, I agree with a no-dig policy. Digging up disturbs the soil and promotes the germination of weeds. In established vegetable beds I would also prefer to cover heavily with mulch after winter rains and then lightly hoe the surface from time to time. However, deep mulches cannot be piled up year after year, there must be an interval when a fork is an alternative.
One of Dove’s eminent goals is to illustrate what owners of smaller gardens can grow. She has three good maxims: use vertical space; Think in blocks of 1 square foot each, marked by sticks placed on the ground; choose heavy-pruning smaller varieties. I wrote down the labels on their low-growing tomatoes, Tumbling Tom Red and Tumbling Tom Yellow, and their low-growing peppers, Lemon Dream and Tangerine Dream.
I also learned from her advice and example that the answer to growing proper spinach is to sow Malabar spinach under glass and sow the young plants in summer when they form vines with large green leaves that are fully flavored are. Kings Seeds from Kelvedon, Essex deliver packages from just £2.05.
Kew’s venture into Edible Science is very interested in finding edible vegetables, which we ignore. I’m not sure if ornamental cannabis roots will ever dominate the dinner table. Yacon may have a future, but I’m not going to give up on potatoes just because they’ve had a bad year of rot. Dahlia bulbs might seem like another culinary dead end, but here’s where I was brought up to speed by one of my fellow visitors.
Lucy Hutchings gave up a career in fashion and jewelry to be self sufficient with vegetables and to support herself and her family. Gardening in bone-dry Suffolk, she has more than 160,000 followers on Instagram (@shegrowsveg) and tells me that she and her husband, a professional chef, grate some of the bulbs from their dahlias as they dig them up and then cook them delicious whole whole hash browns
What about that eco hot spot, the wildlife? At Kew, labels love to spell out experiences for visitors. After hearing about coexistence with slugs, I came across the label of the day: I illustrate it with this column. “We are currently experiencing many badger campaigns. . .”: Join the gang, Kew.
Chili flakes and pepper will never deter a badger on the hunt. Striped invaders trudge through the garden’s gate at night and root in its damp Ethiopian beds. Watering encourages them to play ball with Dove’s young vegetables in search of larvae and insects. I hate to say it, Kew, but badgers are edible, too.
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