The Secret Cevennes - articles by Samantha David
Tips for Land Girls
It used to be in order to have a bottom like Felicity Kendal, and then it was all about going green, but this year growing your own vegetables is mainly about economising.
Apart from what you save at the supermarket, you also save on gym membership because do it with vigour and producing your own five-a-day is fantastic exercise. Best of all, in the Languedoc it doesn't even involve getting cold.
You don't need much equipment. A patch of land is essential though and mine is borrowed from an absent neighbour: I have a little strip of about 20m² which is about the same size as our kitchen, and it feeds the freezer as well as the family.
If you're starting from scratch it's best to chat up the owner of a rotavator. Perhaps offer them future veggies as a bribe? In any case, if you're aiming to dig virgin weed-covered soil yourself with a fork or a spade, wear thick gloves against blisters, and only dig a thin slice at a time. (Otherwise you'll probably break the handle.)
You need to dig it over a few times in fact. Pull out all roots, chuck stones onto pathways, break up stubborn clods and fork in whatever dung you can charm out of the local farmer. This might necessitate a cool box full of refreshing beer. Or possibly many cups of tea at someone else's house as you show off the blisters.
But eventually you'll end up with something smooth and crumbly and that when you can start sowing seeds. Make rows at right-angles to the slope if there is one. Otherwise your water will all run away instead of soaking into the rows. Sow seeds in little trenches so you can send the water running along the trench instead of watering the entire garden and encouraging the weeds.
The conventional wisdom is that on newly dug land you plant potatoes to break up the earth, but do that and the results for the first year can be monotonous. A few seed potatoes will be fun if you like spuds, but you can also try other things. In March you can sow peas, lettuce, and if you can persuade someone to send you the seeds from the UK, parsnips. (Don't dig them up until after the first frost next autumn.)
But the absolutely best tip is to watch other gardeners and ask questions. The neighbours in Moisson are incredibly generous with their advice - and are often glad to hand on cuttings and other stuff. For other ideas on what to plant now, just look on the backs of seed packets.
Once the seeds come up, you have to water them regularly and weed them. Use a little hoe to break the earth up around your crops, and spray them from time to time. If you don't want to use insecticide, try (used) washing up water because household detergent kills lots of garden pests. You could also try planting marigolds in with your veggies because they repel various baddies in the kitchen garden.
Sooner than you think, you'll be dealing with gluts and you will be tempted to try your hand at bottling and preserving. Be very clear however that however you store your veggies, they will never be fresh again. Whatever you do, the taste will be all right but the texture will change. So you may just as well wash them and freeze them as spend hours over a boiling preserving pan. The best way to use frozen veg is in winter soups, because then the texture won't matter.
The only exception to that rule is our household is green tomatoes and quince, both of which make fabulous chutney and just in case you don't have a recipe, here's the one we use:
Sprinkle 2lbs of sliced green tomatoes with salt and leave overnight.
Drain, rinse and then simmer very gently for one to one and a half hours with:
1 pint vinegar
1 lb brown sugar
12oz sliced onion
3 hot red peppers
½ oz finely chopped fresh ginger
¼ oz ground cloves
¼ oz ground black pepper
4oz whole mustard seed
Let cool, bottle and seal.
The peppers can either be left whole and then discarded or chopped and left in before bottling, or the burning seeds can be removed before you make the chutney... (I chop it before putting it in and then leave it in - wear rubber gloves!)
The mustard seed should be the pale yellow round seeds, not fine black ones.
You don't have to seal hermetically: this stuff will keep for years in a simple screw-top jam-jar. I don't sterilize either. I just wash the jars thoroughly and dry them in the oven.
Next column will be uploaded around 1st April.
This article is protected by all international copyright agreements, and reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author.