Mid-May, and to pause is to let the grass grow under your feet. The weather of last week was perfect for growing – bright and hot, followed by two days of non-stop rain, and then warm and sunny again. Blossoms that looked like delicate fine bone china in the sun last weekend were bedraggled and blown out by the downpour, like Edwardian ladies’ dresses whose wearers have fallen into a puddle. The lettuce grew plumper and leafier overnight. Tiny fruits appeared on the damson, apricot and plum trees. I looked for little peach buds in the places where there had been pink flowers a month ago, but there were none – it is likely that the cold snap of three weeks ago kept the bees away, and those blooms went unpollinated.
I feel sad that this year I will not have peaches, but there will be plenty of other fruit: the apple trees, all of them less than three years old, are really in their stride this year – pink buds turning to almost-white blossom on ‘Bountiful’, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, ‘Adam’s Pearmain’, ‘Tom Putt’ and ‘Early Victoria’.
Last year I counted 55 flowers on the quince tree (Meech’s Prolific’) and nearly all of them turned into fruit; this year I stopped counting at 125 flowers. After the downpour, I spotted the first embryonic quince fruit behind a flower that had nearly gone over. It is exciting to think that in five months I will be harvesting these fragrant fruits to make jelly.
I have four blueberry bushes, and ‘Chandler’, which produces large, juicy berries, has a proliferation of flowers that look like ladies’ pantaloons.
I could walk around the plot and do nothing but stare at miniature fruit and emerging shoots all day, but my to-do list for this month is as long as ever. Laying the wood-chip paths got rid of the longest-serving item on my to-do list but it also set me back in seed sowing and everything else by two to three weeks.
In the last few days I got round to dealing with my roots and pulses bed: planting out chick peas that I’d sown back in March and sowing beetroot, turnips, lentils, radishes and salsify. I also sowed carrots in the bottom of an old chest of drawers, filled with soil mixed with a little sand for good drainage.
This is the first year I am growing chick peas, so I am drawing on advice from others. It is not too late to sow chick peas directly in the soil – they are legumes, and you can treat them like French beans or peas in terms of sowing times. But to become true, dried chick peas used for hummus the plants need a long, warm growing season – which is unlikely in the UK. Instead, I will harvest them when they are round and green, and try a fresher, greener hummus.
Back in March, I started some chick pea seeds off in modules in a cold frame. They were potted on to larger pots in the middle of April. Mice love chick pea seeds (as they do the seeds of broad beans and peas) so growing in modules is a good idea, or, if sowing straight into the soil, erect a mouse-proof mini-fence out of netting, or cover completely in mesh or fleece. If you’re sowing now you don’t need to start them undercover.
I normally sow beetroot, turnips and radishes in mid-April, but it is not too late to start them off this month. I sow each of these fairly thinly, but thin each row as they grow, using the picked greens in salads or stir fries. My beetroot varieties this year include ‘Golden’, which is delicious and, because it doesn’t bleed everywhere like traditional beetroot, is great for thinly slicing and using raw in a salad without staining the leaves red; ‘Chioggia’, which has pink and white rings through it like a stick of rock; and ‘Red Ace’, a deep red variety which can be grown to exhibition standard.
I love beetroot, but turnips are starting to surpass them as my favourite root vegetable (although turnips are actually brassicas). I love ‘Golden Ball’ grown to the size of a golf ball, so it is sweet and tender when chopped up and flash fried with garlic and butter. Then there are the turnip tops – the green leaves that are packed with calcium and vitamin C that are tastier than beetroot leaves. Finely chop them and saute in butter then mix with ricotta cheese for a ravioli filling.