Musk mallow

Short version:

A tasty and attractive short lived perennial plant with unusual leaves and lovely large pink flowers. It can grow in almost all soil types and can tolerate some light shade.

Malva moschata or musk mallow is a relative of the better known marsh mallow, whose roots in times past were use to make the confections of the same name.

I started growing this after reading about it in ‘How to grow Perennial Vegetables’ by Martin Crawford. I’ll have to blog more on this book at a later date as I’ve found it to be an amazing resource. Out of the types he listed: hollyhocks, wood mallow, marsh mallow and musk mallow I found, at the time, the musk mallow seeds the easiest to purchase. All mallows are supposed to edible (but don’t eat them unless you’re sure of your identification and do your own research to check that the specific one that you’re eating is definitely edible) but I think only these ones are listed because the others are biennial or annuals.

How to grow

These can be grown from seed either in autumn or in spring. If growing these for the first time I’d suggest sowing in a pot indoors if possible, to help with identification when the seedling appears. It can then be planted out after frosts. I originally sowed mine in autumn and kept it indoors through the winter where it grew fairly slowly.  It then was a strong little plant in the spring.

It can tolerate all types of soil but prefers a moist soil that drains well. I’ve read that it should NOT be fertilised as it can accumulate harmful levels of nitrates in the leaves. Apparently, it is the same with lettuces. It likes full sun but can tolerate light shade. Ours are in a pot which only gets sun from about 1pm onwards and they’re happy.

It has the strangest leaves though. They become more divided as the plant flowers. This makes for interesting pressed leaves or sunprints (which I’ll do a blog on at some point too). In the set of pics of the flowers you can see all the different leaves.

The flowering period runs from July to September, but we have had some flowers in late June before.

It is an evergreen plant and will keep a few leaves at the base, even if the frosts come. However, it is a short-lived perennial but it does self-seed quite happily (even my voracious 5 year old doesn’t manage to eat ALL the flowers before they have a chance to set seed). You won’t notice the oldest plant has died if you have a few that are a year or so old filling in the gaps.

How to harvest

Help yourself to leaves and flowers as of and when they’re there. After flowering, the unripe seed pods can be eaten. I’ve read that they are called cheeses due to their shape. These only have a short window of opportunity before they ripen and become hard seeds. That isn’t a problem as it means you’ll be able to save seeds for next year or let it self seed.

How they taste

I’ve been trying to grow a plethora of edible flowers. Edible is not synonymous with tasty. Things like artichoke buds are gorgeous steamed, borage makes a fun cucumbery snack, nasturtiums are tasty but a bit spicy when raw to eat many of, pansies have a wintergreen flavour (think ‘deep heat’ spray) and then there’s sunflower or dahlia petals which are nicely nutty but many varieties are bitter. Some taste like the rest of the plant, like brassica flowers or herb flowers. Some are just deeply bitter and I find it hard pressed to call them food, though they make a lovely garnish like fuchsias or Siberian purslane. I’m still growing fuchsia in the hope that one of the varieties I grow will produce tasty berries (all are edible but not all taste good).

Musk mallow is a delicate, beautiful flower that grows prolifically in season and tastes lovely raw. It has a lettuce like flavour so goes very well on top of salads or, as it happens in our garden, as a snack as soon as the petals open. If you’ve beaten the bees to it (and the bees do love it) you’ll also get a lovely sweetness to it. The flowers have a slight musky smell if you put your nose in close – hence the name. The musky smell is not noticeable when eating though.

The leaves have a lettuce like taste again, but they also have a slightly mucilaginous feel which is probably why they can be used to thicken soups or stews.

The ‘cheeses’ taste slightly nutty.

Chinese Chives

Short version:

These perennials have flat, grass like leaves that radiate from the base in an upright manner. They spread slowly and grow in clumps. They can be grown from seed or the bulbs/rhizomes can be transplanted to start a patch. They thrive at the opposite time of the year to three cornered leeks so work well grown in conjunction. They taste like sweet mild garlic.

I have been around Chinese chives , also called garlic chives – allium tuberosum – my entire life. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents, as well as my mum grew these in their gardens. Each single plant looks like a succulent wide leaf grass with the leaves stemming from the base. They will grow in a clump.  

How to grow

They can be grown from seed in little pots around April/May and then planted out as small clumps. It’s written in lots of websites that they self seed invasively, but in my own experience the seeds don’t germinate particularly easily. They also lose viability within the year. This may be why they don’t spread very fast. An easier way to get started is to ask someone who already has them to give you a dozen or so spare little plants. They are perennial so they come back every year and can keep growing for decades. The plants my mum has have continued to thrive even after 30 years. It would be hard to know though whether they are still the original plants or whether the oldest plants have died off years ago but have been replaced over the years by self propagating itself some replacements plants. They don’t run rampant like three cornered leeks, which can fill a whole bed within a couple of years. The Chinese chives (from what I’ve seen in my and my family’s gardens) will stay rather local and spread much much slower.  They are however a great plant to grow in conjunction with three cornered leeks.

The three cornered leeks thrive in the winter. They start in October and are in full swing by November when the Chinese chives are beginning to lose their umph. The three cornered leeks flower in April and die back soon after. This is when the Chinese Chives are filling out. As you can see from the photo they look very similar with the broad, flat leaves. The three cornered leeks have the middle rib and have the triangular cross section, whereas the the Chinese chives are very flat.

They like sun but grow fine in shade. This year the runner beans have completely shaded them and they’re still looking fine (picture at the start of the blog – you can even see that the nasturtiums are trying to overrun them).

The flowers grow on tall stalks that get tough as the flowers open. The flowers are lovely and don’t look out of place in a flower bed.  They are also loved by bees.

How to harvest

You can chop the whole thing off at the base before they send their flower shoots up. This is the quickest way and generally how my mum harvests. I, myself, often pull the thickest, juiciest, individual outer leaves to give the inner leaves a bit more time to grow, by severing with a thumbnail.

The flower stem with the bud on top can be harvested, as scapes, before the bud opens.

The flowers can also be harvested and look lovely in a salad, but by this point the stem will be too tough.

How they taste

They have a sweet, garlicky taste. They are excellent lightly stir fried or added to dishes at the last minute. We often eat them as a spring onion substitute in crispy duck pancakes. When they are at their fullest and juiciest, we sometimes stir fry as much as we can collect as a side dish. If they’re chopped up into centimetre long bits, they can be dropped into piping hot soups or congee (a Chinese rice porridge) to add flavour and colour. The scapes are fabulous just lightly fried in a pan.

Japanese Wineberry

Short version:

Like a raspberry but much easier and very yummy. Doesn’t require ericaceous soil, as much sun, has it’s own defence system and won’t send runners into every corner of your garden. The only downside I’ve found so far is that it doesn’t survive not being watered as well as raspberries do.

How to grow

This is much easier than its raspberry counterparts as it doesn’t require ericaceous (acidic) soil to grow in. It can also deal with a little shade and still provide plenty of sweet berries. Its stems are completely covered in these spikey hairs, which provide a wonderful defence against insects, but it does not make it any more cumbersome to harvest than other raspberries with thorns (pruning can be a little difficult, but good gloves help). The wineberry doesn’t tend to wander like raspberries. Raspberries tend to send underground runners into your garden and you’ll find escapees popping up all over the place. This is wonderful if you’re looking to propagate lots of plants, but if you have a small garden and / or a small ericaceous bed then it can become tiresome rather quickly – especially when the raspberries have over run and choked the blueberries. I have read that the wineberry will self-seed. However, in our little garden in London (UK) this has not happened. It might be because the berries are so yummy and not so numerous on our young plant so far that we haven’t left any to do so.

However, they don’t deal as well with dryness as raspberries do, as I found out earlier this summer in a hot spell. The raspberries all did fine, but the Japanese wineberry dried out and died. It was probably because all the raspberries had zapped all the water. It was at this point that I was very sad that it wasn’t invasive like the raspberry or had self-seeded. When I replace it, I will put it in a corner away from the raspberries. I only put it in the ericaceous bed when I originally got it because I thought it was just another type of raspberry. I was very wrong. The flowers do look very different to raspberries. The prickly sepals provide a wonderful defence. In the photos you can see the berries just beginning to push out from under the segments of these flowers.

They are perennial and they will get bigger as the years go on, unless you forget to water and leave it to die… humph!

The canes can be pruned in the autumn after fruiting.

How to harvest

The wineberry get another point for its harvest time. It comes into its own as the summer raspberries are starting to dwindle and the before the autumn fruiting raspberries begin. The berries ripen behind the spiky sepals. The spiny sticky hairs protect the fruit from pests that would like to sneak in there first under the radar before the berry has even had time to grow. The berry starts to push its way out when it is still green. The berry will go orange and then deepen to a scarlet colour. They are quite small, smaller than raspberries.

How it tastes

They basically taste like raspberries, except sweeter. I think these beautiful, shiny, little berries taste how raspberries would taste if they were magicked into sweets.

Tomatoes

Short version: Grow ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes for large harvests of orange, very sweet and tasty round yumminess. They need sun and plenty of water.

Bad Science

My first exposure to growing tomatoes was in Lancashire with my mum and my sister. The tomatoes grew big but went straight from green to rotten, bypassing anything edible. Alternatively, they stayed green. As winter came, we’d wrap the tomatoes left on the withered plant with tissue paper and put them in the airing cupboard or next to bananas to ripen. They still didn’t taste particularly great even when they’d gained some colour.

20 years on, living in London, I tried again. The tomatoes, though they ripened, were inferior to ‘on the vine’ shop bought tomatoes. I tried growing some unusual tomatoes like a stripy variety called ‘Tigerilla’. They were interesting and ripened fine but were riddled with bug holes and again tasted no better than fancier shop bought.

I’ve experimented with a couple of tomatoes, some grown from seed and some from shop bought plants. I have concluded that the best tomatoes to grow for our outdoor conditions in London are cherry tomatoes, of which ‘Sungold’ are the most worthwhile. This has been tested in 3 different London locations in both soil and in pots.

It’s hard to approach this scientifically of course because none of this is a fair test.

You can’t compare tomatoes grown in different years as the weather isn’t consistent year to year. 2018 had amazing sun in June and July and with sufficient irrigation – plants went wild. 2019 has only had about 4 days that were as hot in comparison.

You can also not compare the success of growing food in London to Lancashire (which is about 200 miles north). In addition to the actual latitude of the gardens, there is also the matter of the difference between the greener, more spaced out cooler suburbs and the concrete jungle that retains heat and is generally a degree warmer. The city also benefits from the better bee populations, which benefit from the larger variety of plants packed into a smaller area.

You also cannot compare tomatoes grown 20 years ago to tomatoes grown now. There is no doubt in my mind the climate change has caused an increase in temperature. This has helped my veggie growing but of course we’ll all have drowned when our island is flooded in a couple of decades, as the temperature continues to increase, the polar ice caps melt, and the sea levels rise….er…

Anyway… not a fair test. It’s all bad science – but I happily recommend Sun gold cherry tomatoes!

Why cherry tomatoes?

  • I’ve found that larger tomatoes take much longer to ripen. With cherry tomatoes, once they begin to ripen, you’ll find that every day there’ll be a few more that are ready for picking. This means that with a couple of plants you can pick a meal’s worth of tomatoes every couple of days (or almost every day in mid-summer). The quicker ripening of smaller tomatoes means that the pests have a smaller window of opportunity to get there before you.
  • With cherry tomatoes, as the fruit are smaller, you will get a much larger number of tomatoes per plant. This means that a bug infested tomato or two is a smaller percentage of your total crop.
  • With cherry tomatoes, a few ripening every day, you get a longer season to eat them and less of a glut. So, whilst you won’t get the opportunity to stockpile sauce or chutneys (not that I could be bother to do that anyway) you’ll get value for money with not having to buy tomatoes from the shop all summer.
  • I’m lazy. Cherry tomatoes don’t need chopping up to put into a salad. You also don’t get any overly large tomatoes that you might only eat half of.

Why Sungold?

Having not tasted all the tomato varieties that have existed… ever… in all the world, I couldn’t say this is the ultimate best, but I certainly can’t fault it. It does very well in our climes, in the soil or in pots (you do need a massive pot that you keep well-watered in hot weather – if you want lots of tomatoes over a long period), it’s prolific and not just sweet, but also very very tasty, it’s an interesting orange variety and it’s very forgiving if you pick it a bit early (it tastes good, just not as sweet) or a bit late (they can stay on the vine for a while without rotting).

Growing Conditions

The truly lazy way is to buy a tomato plant. They aren’t too pricey and these days there are even grafted plants available. Grafted plants mean strong roots and hardier plants with tasty fruit grafted on the top half.

However, for the price of a single plant you could buy a whole packet of seeds. Sow seeds in March/April in pots indoors. I always sow individual seeds in large pots (often pot noodle pots or litre juice/milk cartons) as I cannot bear to pinch out the weaker seedlings. If you use large pots, you can keep them indoors for a little longer to give them a better start. They can be hardened off and planted out when you’re completely sure that there will be no more frost.

Tomatoes do best in full sun with soil that never gets dry or waterlogged. If the tomatoes have sporadic watering it can lead to the fruit splitting or end rot.

Pollination

In any of the areas of London that I have tried growing tomatoes I have never had to worry about hand pollinating them. I have read that tomatoes are both wind-pollinated and insect pollinated so I’m not sure how much difference the good London bee populations make. They also don’t need another plant to set fruit. In a greenhouse, however, with neither wind nor insects the flowers may drop off and not set fruit. I’ve also read that bumble bees are the best pollinators of tomatoes as their ‘buzz’ shakes the flowers enough to pollinate them. This can be replicated by vibrating the plant. Apparently, an electric toothbrush is a good tool for this. Anyway, the point is that tomatoes are self-pollinating. This means that the seeds in the fruit will grow into plants that will then grow the same fruit as the parent plant. So, seeds can be collected for the next year. Even better, sometimes you’ll find that, in your tomato bed from the previous year, you’ll have lots of little seedlings that can be transplanted to a new site. It is wise to consider crop rotation to avoid a build of pests and diseases and depleting the soil of certain nutrients.

Harvesting

The best thing about growing your own is that you can pick the tomatoes when they are fully ripe. Shop bought is often picked when not quite ripe, to prolong travel life and shelf life. This means that the flavour often suffers. You can also use your plants a bit like a larder. If you don’t feel like tomatoes for a meal, leave them on the vine to get sweeter. My little one loves just going into the garden for a forage or a graze. She’s picked and eaten enough cherry tomatoes to be able to tell if they’re ripe and it increases her vegetable intake with no effort by me. She’ll either come back into the house satisfied or carrying a bowl of ‘salad’ which comprises of mostly tomatoes, mint leaves and nasturtium flowers. Sometimes there’s handfuls of rosemary and lavender in there. She’s still hoping to con daddy into eating one of her salads one day.

My favourite thing about tomatoes is the weird little ‘elbow’ you get on the stalk, with some varieties, which snaps easily when the fruit is ripe. It does occur in Sungold and it is so satisfying to snap the tomatoes off, not to mention easier to harvest, as secateurs are not required.  

What cute little elbows!!!!

Blueberries (Vaccinium)

Short version:

Home grown blueberries can taste so much better than most of the shop bought ones. They are also perennial and easy to grow in a pot with ericaceous compost. They need little maintenance and are very rewarding.

Grow for amazing tasting berries

For shipping and storing purposes, store bought fruit is picked when it’s less than ripe. When things ripen off the bush they just aren’t as sweet or flavourful. When you grow your own blueberries you can literally pick them off the bush when they’re perfectly ripe and just eat them. We don’t really use fertilisers or pesticides in our growing so I’m happy for our 3 year old to help herself as she pleases. At the beginning it was quite a struggle to teach her when they’re ripe, but the instant consequence of an unripe sour blueberry helped. The important thing is that she always checks with me when she sees anything outside of our own garden that she thinks might be edible.  

Varieties

Not absolutely all blueberries that you grow yourself are guaranteed to grow well and/or taste amazing. If you’re going to give up time, effort and space to grow your own blueberries it’s worth picking a good variety.

I scoured the internet to see which ones were recommended for taste, hardiness, vigour, disease resistance, etc and went with:

GOLDTRAUBE

Vigorous and tall. Harvest July-August. Very sweet, juicy berries that are full of flavour. Foliage is attractive in autumn with lots of red.

PINK SAPPHIRE

A pink blueberries that surprises everyone. I find they’re sweeter than Goldtraube but not quite as flavourful. Harvest July-August. This grows as tall as the Goldtraube.

BLUECROP

Vigorous and low growing. I was surprised at how low this grows, especially compared to the others. Sweet and juicy. It’s a mid-late season one. Harvest in August-September. Just begins to ripen as the other two are depleted.

Perennial

Year after year they will provide food. They do seem to follow the adage of first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap. The first couple of years they may be a bit slow, but generally, if happy, by the 3rd year they’ll have picked up the pace and provide punnetfuls. So there’s a bit of work in the planting in the beginning. Patience is then required for a year or so afterwards but then it’s really easy.

Growing conditions

You can buy them in the late spring or summer as a pot plant. Or you can buy them as bare rooted bushes in the winter, which is the cheaper option.

SUNNY

Ours are in one of the sunnier parts of the garden, though not the sunniest and we still get very tasty, sweet berries.

ERICACIOUS SOIL

This means acidic. This is London and the soil here is pretty much alkaline clay. You can amend the soil but honestly, I don’t have the time or patience. They therefore make good container plants. These bushes started in pots with shop bought ericaceous compost.

For lazy old me though, pots dry out too quickly. So, winter just gone, I built a raised bed. I put about 3 months of kitchen scraps (vegetable – no meat, oil or sauces) at the bottom, covered it with cardboard and let that decompose for a few months before I put the plants in. It was topped up with shop bought ericaceous compost. The composted kitchen waste provides plenty of nutrients and also decreases the amount of paid for, shop bought compost.

The roots have access to the soil underneath, which is of course is the alkaline clay but at least it means the plant is much less likely to dry out. Also, I put them here because the roof of this building drains water along this whole edge into this raised bed. This is important especially in summer because you don’t want to water these with tap water if you can avoid it. Tap water tends to be alkaline, where as rain water is generally neutral or slightly acidic because of its contact in the sky with carbon dioxide. A rain barrel is a good way to get rainwater. Rain barrels are also good for conserving water.

SPACING

I’ve read that blueberry bushes should really be about a metre apart but with a small garden I do tend to grow things far too close. In the first couple of years it’s fine anyway. Maybe in a few years I’ll find I have to remove the middle one but for now I’m really pleased with the food that these bushes have been providing.

PRUNING

My ones are only 3 years old so this is what I’ve read: First few years just remove any dead, damaged or diseased parts. After around 4 years the wood doesn’t produce much anymore so they’re best pruned away. You can prune away wood in the spring that has only leaf buds, which are thinner and pointier than the flower buds.  

Pollination

Blueberries are generally self pollinating but they do better with a pollinating partner – basically another blueberry of a different variety that has flowers open at the same time. Without pollination you get no fruit. This is also a good reason to attract pollinators like bees and avoid pesticides. If you live in a city like London there are generally lots of bees about due to the large year round variety of flowers and if you’re lucky a nearby neighbour might also be growing blueberries.

So… you may now have realised that my edible garden evangelism, is in part selfish. It’s all part of my evil plan to convince those around me to grow edibles – then I get pollination partners and people to seed/plant swap with. There is also, of course, the hope that by growing more of our own we damage the environment a little less and … hey… I rather like living on this planet.

As usual…Feel free to subscribe or comment, especially you have a variety that you love.