Back in February this year I wrote about my attempts to find the best way to grow watercress (Nasturtium officinale) in a container.
Growing it in a pot submerged in water hadn't worked too well for me so I tried growing it in a large tub of sandy compost with minimal drainage and giving regular waterings of tap water. This has been successful and we've harvested it a lot over the year.
It has grown better when the weather has been cooler though. The leaves are a bit smaller than shop-bought watercress. I'm not sure yet if this is because our yard is shadier than commercial watercress beds or because I've only given it an occasional feed. I'll try and remember to set up a rough trial next year to judge this.
Watercress is a brassica and suffers from a similar range of pests as cabbage. I was accidentally well-prepared for defending the watercress against cabbage white butterfly egg-laying attempts. The orange tub pictured above had been previously used for my Daubenton kale cuttings and I had constructed this frame to fit the tub and covered it in netting. It worked well for the watercress too. (The net really needs to be finer for defence against flea beetle and greenfly but we were fortunate not to get many of these in the backyard this year).
As watercress leaves can be killed by the frost I covered the frame with some polythene today. I think this will keep off all but the very worst of the weather this winter. It the temperature drops extremely low and the plants die they are very easily replaced by cuttings from a bag of shop cress.
Watercress appreciates the minerals in hard tap water. What a splendid excuse not to mend that dripping outdoor tap - just site your watercress pot beneath it! But however it is grown watercress is an excellent backyard perennial vegetable as it doesn't mind shade, grows almost all year and gives you a lot of nutrients from a small space.
If you don't want to root your own cuttings I do have some watercress plants for sale on my website.
I know there is value in an honest warts-and-all blog but I am a little embarassed about some of the perennial vegetable photographs this year (the autumn set of photos are below and you can see how they looked in spring here and summer here). There are clear signs of neglect you see. Naturally I blame my annual vegetable garden taking up all my time - perhaps oneday I'll find enough perennial vegetables to give it up all together! I think my main shortcoming has been not doing enough mulching with soil-enriching and moisture retaining compost and I've had some hungry and thirsty plants as a result and a few poorly ones too.
But it is hard to put the strange case of the patience dock down to this failing. This plant has apparently died and arisen from the dead repeatedly all year. In the summer I decided something must be grazing upon it and so I covered it with chicken wire and protected it from slugs with some iron phosphate granules. But it disappeared again only to put forth another new leaf a few weeks ago! Docks are known for being vigorous plants that gardeners struggle to eradicate. The nearby lovage, often a monster of a plant, hasn't grown as much as I expected either along with some other plants I expected to really take off including common chicory and a Crambe tatarica. I've wondered if the soil was poisoned as all these plants are growing close to the allotment boundary where a previous allotment neighbour used annual applications of weedkiller. But planted further away is my horseradish plant, another notorious toughie, and it has shown similar reluctance to realise its full potential. The troubled plants are all deep rooters and I think there is a layer of very thick clay about a foot down in this part of the allotment - an apple tree in this area languished for several years before starting to grow properly. But could that be sufficient cause for the problems of these robust plants? I remain mystified.
I'll resite some plants and apply as much compost mulch as I can this autumn. At least with perennials if you neglect them one year you have the chance to pamper them the next - and hope they forgive you!
|Mallow (Mystic Merlin)|
|New globe artichoke|
|Dwarf golden hop|
|Buck's horn plantain|
It's a bit hard to see the skirret plants but they are in there - between the frame on the left and the leafy scorzonera on the right, nestled amongst some weeds and the silverweed plants I grew as groundcover - a few of them holding their dried umbellifer stalks aloft.
I dug them up today to compare their root size with the harvest from last year.
|This year's skirret roots|
|Last year's skirret roots|
I'm pleased with the results. I don't think any are fatter than the 15mm wide root I measured last year but there were more fat, long roots and overall they were somewhat straighter. I didn't manage to dig up the whole length of the roots - they tended to break off at a spade's depth!
|Broken root - 25cm long.|
The improvement is probably a result both of selecting the clumps of the thickest roots to divide and replant last autumn and of making the soil lighter, richer and moister with the addition of sand and a mulch of garden compost. (They are noticeably less 'hairy' too - I'm not sure but I'm thinking this is because the plants didn't have to produce such a mass of fine lateral roots this year as a response to low soil moisture). I replanted divisions from the most promising clumps again and as I don't think the silverweed ground cover has been to their detriment, I popped some silverweed transplants down the centre of the bed too. (I did the 'harvesting and replanting the fattest' routine with the silverweed too - would be great if this most adorable of rampant weeds became another rewarding perennial vegetable!)
|Replanted skirret bed|
I brought the remaining roots home to cook - not sure what we're going to do with them yet - maybe sweet skirret mash this time! (Here is my post on skirret from last year for more information on this 'being-rediscovered' vegetable.)
Last October I blogged about the five wild cabbage plants I had grown. I wasn't sure how perennial the plants would prove to be and wrote that I would just have to wait and see what they did. So here is an update to show you what they've done so far.
The plants grew bigger and gave us lots of leaves to eat last winter and produced broccoli-like shoots that we ate early last spring.
All five plants went on to flower in late spring with yellow flowers. When the first flush of flowers appeared I nipped them off individually as I'd read that the plants are less likely to die if they aren't allowed to go to seed (sorry for the lack of a 'before' picture but you can probably just see a few yellow flowers that I missed!) More appeared and I cut those off too. Yet more appeared and I started going over the plants with the garden shears!
I let one plant go to seed hoping to observe what difference this would make.
It appeared to have died but then it started to shoot from the main stem. Unfortunately these shoots have lately begun to die, possibly due to summer drought. I'd rather not have the work of trimming the flowers off the plants, and it would be better for the insects if I didn't, so it will be interesting to see whether this plant recovers in the damper weather.
Gradually the plants ceased their attempts to flower but were left looking rather ragged.
Some were more ragged than others.
I decided to cut this one right back to see if that would encourage it to sprout fresh shoots.
I'm pretty sure I've killed it!
The three remaining plants began to pick up in late summer.
One is still looking a bit patchy.
The other two look pretty leafy.
So it looks like we will be feeding on wild cabbage leaves and flower shoots for another winter and spring - and then I'll see what the plants do after that!
A couple of years back a friend gave me some seed labelled Portuguese cabbage.
I grew some seedlings and planted one out at the allotment alongside some other heritage brassicas such as Sutherland kale, Madeley kale and Delaway cabbage. At first I grouped it with these others in my mind also; broadly similar leafy brassicas which nonetheless offer up interesting individual characteristics in leaf form and colour, flavour, heat and cold tolerance, disease and pest resistance.
Meanwhile I was trying to lay my hand on some cuttings of tree collards from the United States, having heard that they are 'true' perennials, like Daubenton kale, in that they rarely flower and keep growing for several years. (Many brassicas will keep growing after their second year flowering, especially if you remove the flowers as they appear. But I have found that this can be a lot of work - they are often really keen to flower, managing to replenish their flowers just a few days after the last lot have been removed - and that during this enthusiastic flowering phase they produce fewer and smaller leaves.) I couldn't find anyone who would send tree collard cuttings to England but in searching the web I found a comment that Portuguese kale/cabbage was the European equivalent of the tree collard.
I inspected the one Portuguese kale I'd grown with renewed interest. It was impressive! It was growing fast and had very frilly, large, thick, grey-green leaves of mild flavour with prominent white midribs and veins, growing from the top of a two foot stem. It looked very distinctive - and very distinguished - amongst the heritage kales.
It is not easy to say for certain but comparing this kale to photographs on the internet it looks similar to those described as 'couve galega'. Frillier than some, admittedly, but I understand couve galega to be the name for a landrace plant, a genetically diverse variety of a domesticated species that is adapted to local conditions. So frilly and non-frilly may be all in the mix, or frilly types may come from a particular part of Portugal.
|Older Portuguese kale leaf|
As for flowering, well it obviously does, or I would not have been given seed, but this plant didn't flower this year, its second year, when most of the other kales were flowering their heads off (including the walking stick kale, also known as Jersey kale). Another one that didn't flower very much however, was one that came to me as seed, via the Heritage Seed Library, labelled as 'tall kale'. It shares some characteristics with the Portuguese cabbage having large leaves with white midribs and veins and a similar height. But it is more tree-like than the Portuguese kale with heads of leaves arising from separate branches.
|'Tall' kale leaves|
At present at least, the leaves of the Portuguese kale all arise from about the same place at the top of the stout stem. As the plant grows from the crown it drops its lower leaves and so the bare portion of the stem gets longer.
|Portuguese kale about to lose a lower leaf|
I don't yet know how hardy this kale is. It survived last winter with ease but it was a mild winter. Some sources I've read suggest that it is not only very cold-hardy but more likely to be perennial in cold climates, whilst others suggest the opposite on both counts. Luckily it is easily propagated from cuttings (scroll halfway down this forum page to find some great photos of the kale growing in Portugal and how to propagate it). It occurs to me that even if it isn't reliably hardy in the UK, taking cuttings like this is a very easy way to have a perpetual supply of kale.
Portuguese kale is used to make a delicious soup, beloved of many Portuguese people, called caldo verde and described very lovingly in this delightful blog post by Joy Albright-Souzaby. I based my attempt on the recipe given there but, as we are vegetarians, I used vegetable stock and, instead of Portuguese linguiça (smoked pork sausage), a vegetarian 'sausage' made from lentils flavoured with lots of smoked paprika and garlic.
|Smoked paprika and lentil patties|
The soup is often served with freshly grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over - I meant to serve some grated cheddar instead for the sake of economy but then forgot about serving cheese altogether.
The recipe said to eat the soup with crusty bread and glasses of red wine - so we did!
It was good.