In our kitchen garden, with its warm, south-facing wall, we start sowings as early as March and, by using cloches, have good results with things such as carrot, radish, parsnip and spring onion. But, in the open ground, it’s always best to wait a little, until the soil has really warmed up. This is especially true for most of the cucurbits (courgettes, squashes and pumpkins), which hate getting cold and never really recover from the experience.
This group of vegetables has great variation in size, colour and shape, but can all be grown in a similar way. They can be direct sown quite successfully, but we find it better to sow them in the glasshouse in early May, into 3½in pots of general-purpose compost. They germinate best at about 18˚C and, as soon as they look robust enough, are moved to the cold frame to harden off.
By opening up the cold-frame lids during the warmer weather and shutting them down at night and during cold snaps, the plants can be gradually introduced to the elements. By the time they’ve filled their pots, the nights should be warm enough and the plants tough enough to be planted out in the garden in early June.
Cucurbits need a sunny, sheltered and well-drained spot to do well and they demand a rich soil, so we dig in liberal amounts of well-rotted horse manure before planting. Watering is quite important for their establishment and it’s also useful to apply a thick mulch at planting time, before the scrambling growth covers the ground. Because of these plants’ love of organic matter, it’s also a nice trick to plant them on an old compost heap, by putting them into holes filled with soil or potting compost.
Bush-forming courgettes can be planted about 4ft apart and need no training. But they must be harvested daily, to prevent them turning in to enormous, bland marrows. We always grow Alexander for green fruit and Atena for yellow and find the flavour is best when they’re about 6in long. However, the greatest delicacy from these plants is the flowers, which can be stuffed, fried or battered and are always in demand from the chefs.
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The flowers can be picked from plants in the kitchen garden, but we always grow some courgettes in a polytunnel especially for this purpose, as heavy rain can sometimes spoil the appearance of this delicate crop.
Scrambling squashes and pumpkins are planted in rows, 6ft to 10ft apart, depending on their vigour. Smaller varieties of squash can be grown up frames or over arches to form very attractive features, but we just let ours scramble over the ground. Each side shoot should be pinched out to 2ft, to encourage fruiting, and the leader can be trained into spirals to make the most
of the ground.
The bulk of our crop is made up of the varieties Hunter a delicious butternut squash developed for the English climate-and Crown Prince, an old, reliable and very attractive variety with a sweet, nutty flavor. Spaghetti squash has also become an increasingly popular crop with our chefs as it’s quite a novelty on the menu and is so good at absorbing and carrying other flavours.
In addition, we always grow a mix of ornamental gourds, including the fantastic Turks Turban, used for decoration in the hotel, and Jack o’ Lantern pumpkins, for fun at Halloween.
The company of corn
Because squashes are such vigorous plants, they do take up a lot of space, which is one of the most precious things in any vegetable garden. To compensate for this, we like to plant our sweetcorn in blocks between the rows, which will grow up above the foliage of the squash, before it engulfs their feet.
Sweetcorn can be sown at a similar time to the squash and, as they like similar growing conditions, they seem to get along well together. They actually make quite an attractive foliage combination while allowing us to produce two of the most delicious summer crops from the same space.
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