I grew up in the countryside with a wild garden front and back. Our house was a new build and so the garden was new too. My first foray into edible gardening was in this garden as a small child, when I transplanted my new broad bean plant from a yogurt carton where it had been planted in school, into the soil. I was mesmerised by how much it grew. Then I discovered that marrowfat peas could be germinated in water and planted to become whole bean plants. Beanstalks, maybe with giants at the top? At 7 this seemed possible.
I became reckless with my germination and one day filled a big plastic tub with marrowfat peas and boiling hot water before spilling it all over my feet. I couldn’t wear shoes for a week, my feet were covered with blisters and I could hardly walk. Instead I wore floral slippers with a big orange furry bit at the front. (Remember those? I loved them.) This didn’t halt my gardening ambitions. I planted my pea plants in a rockery out the back and watched my beanstalks grow. One day I bounced out only to discover an invasion of slugs, and that was it. I was DONE. Nobody had warned me about that.
I was surrounded by gardens though, and farms, and apple trees, even one orchard where we would play. My aunt had a half acre planted with glorious veg, a fruit patch and a greenhouse with vines clambering overhead. Nearby was an abandoned old house, still standing and interweaved with stories all from my head. To each side was a wood, and towards the back a walled garden, our very own secret garden, with apple trees, a cherry tree and lots of fruit bushes, including my favourite gooseberry. It was wild and unmaintained, thick briars climbed the walls but we hardly noticed them. I was a voracious reader and loved The Secret Garden. I fancied that this was one of my own.
Since then, a kitchen garden was always something that I wanted to have. But a garden in London is a luxurious thing. One flat I lived in had a sunny window and I had a tiny chilli farm growing in the heat of the sun. I finally moved to a flat with a garden a few years back, but I travel so much planting a garden was never something that I could do. Until this year, a year that I have slowed down to focus on some projects (that book) and just be, rather than be on the move all the time. (I still travel a lot I know, but smaller short haul projects, I am saving my long haul stuff for the second half of the year).
Sometimes things are in the ether. I had already bought lots of seeds for my edible garden, heritage Italian seeds and beans, when Wyevale Garden Centres got in touch to see if I wanted to work with them on a gardening project. They could help with what I needed to create my edible garden (I had told them that that was what I wanted to do). I started to research. I knew that I wanted courgettes, they were a key motivation, my desire for a courgette flower bounty was strong. I have long been obsessed with edible flowers too, since I was a child. My first cookbook contains many, from rose flower butter to pansy salad potato soup with chive flowers and chive oil. Wild garlic flowers, wild leek flowers and elderflower are regulars in my kitchen.
I am a month into my kitchen gardening and I am obsessed and mesmerised. The joy of planting a seed and nurturing it to a plant is a wonderful thing. It can be time consuming but I find it so positive, except when I have to deal with the slugs. More on that below.
How to start?
Starting Your Kitchen Garden
From Seed or from Plant?
This really depends on how much time you have, when you start and how much work you want to put in. Growing from seed is very satisfying but it is a longer process and it can be quite involved. Yes seeds do just grow themselves, and it is mesmerising, but starting from plants is quicker, and by the time you get them most of the hard work will be done. If you are starting now, I would start with a mix. If you want courgettes, move quickly, or start from a plant. I will be sharing lots about the possibilities about those over the coming months.
I started my garden with some plants provided by Wyevale Garden Centres (including two types of tomato, aubergine, chives, an elephant garlic plant and some flowers) and some seeds, compost, tomato feed and a propogator. A propagator is a useful tool if you are planting late as I did, it is basically a tiny greenhouse that gets your seedlings off to a speedier start. My courgette seedlings popped their head above the soil within 4 days, my purple carrots and nasturtiums took longer. In general you can expect seedlings in at least half the time. You can get simple ones that are just a box with a plastic lid that absorbs the light and sunshine, at this point of the year these will work very well inside or in a bright window. I used a plug in one which I liked so much I bought a second one. This allowed me to start lots of seedlings quickly which I could then plant outside. Take care not to over water them, you can get some mould growing too. Just make sure the soil is nice and damp.
You can of course choose not to plant from seeds and instead plant pots that you buy from your garden centre, where there are amazing selections. More mature plants stand a better chance against slugs and if you are starting late, it gives you a head start.
Where and How to Plant Your Seedlings?
You have your gorgeous seedlings, such a joy. Before planting them in a container or in the ground let them adjust to the new temperatures outside first and give them at least a few days, taking care to water them. I have an old table that I use as a nursery. If you have a small urban garden like me, or even just a patio, you might want to stick to containers for simplicity on your first time. My garden is wild and needs a lot of attention. The soil quality isn’t great. Using bags and containers I can control the soil quality and grow my edibles without sorting all of that out. I bought a couple of tomato planters (not grow bags) and some good organic peat free soil and planted my new seedlings in those. Disaster struck, that first night an avalanche of snails and slugs devoured the lot. So, I had to learn how to deal with that.
Strategies for Dealing with Snails and Slugs
Yeah I know. I am sorry about that, but this is your new reality. Slugs and snails are your new bête noire. You want a gorgeous bountiful kitchen garden? You need to deal with snails and slugs. This year there are more than ever as we have had a mild winter, they are calling them sleepless superslugs. Yeah, I know. Don’t worry you can still leave the house. I hate slugs and snails so much each encounter was punctuated by a squeal, a roar or an expletive. Often all three. But you can do it.
Slugs love courgettes and nasturtiums and similar juicy plants. There are many different types of slugs, some techniques work for some and not for others. I found copper tape ineffective for the tough troop in my garden. You also need to think about the rest of your garden, as fun as it would be to poison them (I know, but you know, different rules for slugs and rodents) or salt them (melt like the wicked witch of the west you vicious slug but it will ruin your soil). You need to think about pets and neighbourhood cats if you are putting down pellets.
Here are your sensible and ecologically friendly options:
Think barriers: these guys are slippery and gross and don’t like anything sharp. There are natural options: coffee grounds, egg shells, sharp gravel and sand (both of which you can get in garden centres for the purpose). Bake egg shells briefly first and rinse them of any remaining egg as eggs are tasty and you don’t want to be attracting any beasties that might like those.
Attract predators: birds and hedgehogs love slugs and if you can attract them to your garden they will love it. BUT please be careful with slug pellets as some can poison these animals and other pets. (See below for my recommendations!). Turn over your soil to expose the slugs and eggs and let the birds and hedgehogs feast on them. We love you birds and hedgehogs!
Drown them in beer: this wasn’t very successful for me but others swear by it. Put a saucer of beer by your plants and slugs will go in and drink it and drown in there. Others recommend beer traps, beer in empty yogurt pots put in the soil and buried near your vulnerable plants. Or a beer can with some beer in it, they apparently will wander in and then they are easily disposed of.
Commercial options: slug pellets are an option but be aware of the effects that they might have on pets, garden birds and hedgehogs etc. I bought Sluggo Slug and Snail Killer which is iron based and toxic to slugs but safe for everything else. The slugs go underground once they eat them leaving no trace. Follow instructions and don’t put out too many. I also tried Slug Gone wool pellets which are a completely natural product which irritate slugs feet (I know, who knew they had feet, and did you know they had 24,000 teeth EACH?). They are completely safe for children and animals, and also act as a natural mulch, discourage weeds and nourish your soil. They biodegrade naturally too. I have found slug wool to be a magical thing, and the only thing which protects my gorgeous seedling courgettes. Both of these products are available at Wyevale Garden Centres. Lots have recommended nematodes to me also but I haven’t tried these yet. These are small worms that exist naturally in soil and that kill slugs naturally. You can put these in before you plant too, clearing the way for your plants.
Which Edibles Should You Plant?
That all depends on what you want to eat of course and the time of year you want to plant. I want to plant everything but I have limited space and it is my first year so I am still learning. Starting at this time of year (June), I decided to focus on tree things:
I have planted several types, including ridged Roman ones and a courgette plant that only produces flowers. I am all about the flowers as much as I love the courgette. Expensive to buy and hard to find, they also have a very limited shelf life. None of these are problems when you grow your own! I want to make courgette flower pizzas, Roman style; courgette flower tacos, Mexican style; I want to stuff them, fry them, and eat them all summer long. Well, after they flower anyway. Slugs love courgettes so I have been at war, but I am winning. See above for my tips for your battle!
An Edible Flower Garden
I have long been obsessed with edible flowers. There is an overlap with the courgette patch above, the most regal of edible flowers, and also many herbs have gorgeous edible flowers too. I got a lovely selection from Wyevale Garden Centres to plant and also planted some of my own. From Wyevale Garden Centres: bright purple chicory flowers, chives (with their pom pom purple chive flowers), garlic chives (with their parasol of white flowers), borage flowers (perfect for salads and for summer drinks with their gorgeous cucumber flavour) and lots of nasturtiums both for their leaves and their flowers.
A Herb Garden
I have planted lots of herbs. I buy lots and then watch as they wilt and lose their vigour. I want to snip them from my window boxes and use them while fresh and full of life and flavour. I have had occasional pots of herbs around but nothing long term. I am excited. I planted: parsley, sage, rosemary, basil, oregano, lemonbalm, lemon verbena.
Also: Salad, Carrots, Pumpkins, Chillies, Tomatoes, Strawberries
And other bits and bobs! Let’s see how this goes. I am so excited. The idea of my pantry extending into the garden and using everything while fresh and full of flavour fills me with joy. I have gone a bit crazy and bought so many seeds and plants. But I love it, and hopefully I should reap some rewards too.
Over to YOU!
I want your tips and stories! Do you have a kitchen garden, or a bountiful window box? Are you excellent at managing slugs?! What should I plant that I haven’t planted yet.
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This recipe is the first in a series of four that was written in partnership with Wyevale Garden Centres who sponsored this post. Come back for more detail on planting courgettes, an edible flower garden and a herb garden, with lots of recipes too. I am posting daily updates on snapchat also, where you can also follow Game of Slugs (aka SLUG WARS). All editorial is mine, as always. (Read more about sponsored content on Eat Like a Girl).