Sweetcorn, onions and leeks

Traditional kitchen gardens are introspective places, tucked away in their own world of rotation and productivity. The walled garden at Titsey Place is no different, except that its location, settled into rolling downland on a noticeable south-facing slope, gives you nice views out of it from wherever you are in the garden. To the north and east are the estate’s woodland-crested hills, which provide a shelter belt; southwards is the undulating park around the house and westwards are the cattle pastures of the home farm. So it is always a scenic place, but at high summer, it’s also at its most attractive, with the herbaceous and cut-flower borders in full bloom beside the ripening crops.

Of all the kitchen-garden crops, sweetcorn is one that is well worth taking the trouble to grow at home, in order to be able to cook it straight away after picking. Really fresh corn cobs have a sweetness that rapidly converts into starch once harvested, so the quicker the turnaround between plot and plate, the better the flavour.

Sweetcorn also makes an attractive crop, of broad, grassy leaves and silky tassels. As it is a crop which is wind-pollinated, it is better to plant out in blocks of, say, nine to 12 plants of any given variety, rather than long, thin rows. Ours were sown individually in pots (the seedlings resent root disturbance) in early April and planted out in the middle of May at spacings of about 18in apart for each plant, which is quite wide spacing, but they are looking tremendous and have grown away really prolifically. Many individual plants have grown multi-stemmed, some having as many as five or six stems per plant. You can expect to get a couple of cobs on each stem, so this year’s corn crop should be very good.

To get a long season of cropping, we grow a mixture of fast- and slower-maturing varieties: Early Bird is the first; followed by the second-early Prelude; then comes Ovation, which crops mid-season; and lastly Conqueror. A mixture such as this gives us a succession of corn cobs to harvest over two months or slightly longer. We don’t undercrop the corn with other things (such as marrows or dwarf beans) as some people do, as there is plenty of space here for everything else anyway. Assuming you have given it a sheltered, sunny site and fertile, well-manured soil, sweetcorn usually needs little attention once planted out, except a little hand-weeding or careful hoeing between plants, and watering regularly if the weather turns dry.

This time of year also sees the harvest of the onions we’ve just dug ours up and laid them out to dry off for a couple of weeks in the cold frame, where they’re protected from any rain. Every year, we grow a row of Kelsae onions, from seed that was sown in February. Kelsae is the potentially very large, show-type of onion, raised here chiefly for visitors’ interest. But for eating purposes, we will soon be making plaits of Centurion a fine-flavoured, golden-coloured F1 hybrid; Sturon is a good main-crop onion of pungent flavour and is slow to bolt; Turbo is biggish, well flavoured and of uniform size, and therefore popular with commercial growers; we also have Red Baron, a good, dark-red onion of sweeter flavour. All of these were grown from sets planted out mid-March in rows about 15in apart, a generous spacing which gives you room to hoe carefully between the rows, because once you accidentally bend over the tops of the growing plant, that’s the end of its growth potential.

In another bed are the leeks, which are very undemanding at this time of year. We have Tornado, quite a late one, and a French heirloom variety called Blue Solaise, which makes very large leeks with a deep, hearty flavour, ideal for soups. All were planted out at pencil-size in July, dropped into 6in-deep holes, each plant 9in apart, and the rows 18in apart. They should last until March or April and just be dug up as required. You can get a bit of mildew or rust on leeks in some summers, although I haven’t seen any yet; otherwise, you just need to hoe between them carefully to keep weeds at bay. There are other leeks which were leftovers in a seedbed and weren’t separated and planted out; they’ve grown up in bunches close together, and are harvested now, as baby leeks.