The first season in ‘The Ruin’

The new kitchen garden is almost a year old today. James and Colin started lifting the concrete floor of the roofless byre last October.  All nice and cheery, none of us realising what a monstrous job it was going to be.

First path laid

Beneath the concrete, lovely flagstones (all of which were kept), and which we were delighted to have – more stone for what is almost a stone garden.  However, beneath the flags was an earlier floor of rough cobblestones supported on almost 60cm of rubble. Yes, the old cobbled flooring was interesting, but we needed fertile ground!

Skip after skip was filled. Spades broke, crowbars bent, buckets’ handles proved useless. Except where the 18th century flagstones were in places where we planned the paths, everything got excavated. Endles cups of tea and coffee vanished into what looked like the entrances to mine shafts.

Then the rains started. The holes filled up.  It turned out that we’d excavated almost to the water table – so at least the veggies were going to have enough of that. We certainly had far more than enough!

Eventually the excavations were filled with compost mixed with soil from the midden out in the wood. Flagstones were relaid as paths. The wood store was put up, a seat constructed, and standing area for coalbin and the ugly recycling bins made.  A service path was made reusing some of the old cobbles.  Soil was raked and primed. The seat was sat upon, and the fantasy began.

Being a sucker for glamorous seed packets, an order went in to the UK branch of the Italian company Franchi Seeds, surely the company with the most beautiful packaging of all. Who could resist those marvellous looking climbing beans, or the prettily coloured and jagged leaf endives? Who could resist palest jade green courgettes, or gorgeously mottled and ribbed squashes and pumpkins? Ticks went by the boxes of chards and lettuces, fennels, rockets, basils, radishes…

It was unrealistic, even in earliest spring. The entire kitchen garden is only 16m. square, which, calculation showed, only allowed half a dozen plants of each sort, and what use are six spinaches or six radishes?.  And what of the plants I knew certainly wouldn’t do outdoors in this bit of Scotland – the tomatoes, the peppers and so on… OK, the garden has 2m high stones walls that trap heat, and keep out wind. All would be well.  No, I was being daft. Daft.

Sowing began.  Fleece was anchored over the rows – using cobbles as weights.  It was all set for a glorious future.  Then, of course, we didn’t know that the summer would be the wettest since 1916, and one of the coolest too. Still, there we were, getting the Victorian cloche restored, set at the garden’s centrepiece, and with some lettuce seed carefully sown inside. The only realistic thing we did was to sort out a piece of ‘the wood’ that lies beyond the ruin with a raised pile of compost on which to plant the courgettes and relatives, though we did forget that the wood was windy – sensibly so for the original cottages, as it was once a sort of communal drying green.

dill gone mad, and even a nettle or two

And so here we are at season’s end. Some things did, some things definitely didn’t. My idea of growing beans stylishly, up bamboo obelisks rising from some Versailles tubs we had was in all senses a flop.  The French beans grew like mad, raced to the top of their canes, made a top heavy tangle, were only in flower by September, and refused to set more than a handful of beans.  They then toppled over in the wind. ‘Borlotto’ did a bit better grown against a wall, and are still to be harvested.  But we are just back from Italy, where I bought a large bag of nicely dried beans for almost nothing.

The pumpkins clambered over each other, up a hedge, down the other side, but fruit? Nah. Well, there are three on the shelf. The pale courgette was fine. Most of the glut is now picked in the pantry, though one I didn’t notice is a 70cm juggernaut I’m not quite sure what to do with.

On the other hand, ‘leaves’ did wonderfully. Lettuces, rockets, endives, chards, spinaches, all did us proud. For the first, we had to resort to Elizabeth David’s lovely ‘Summer Cooking’ to discover some delicious ways of cooking the lettuce glut. Chards were, and remain, wonderful. A big saute pan makes cooking them, with chunks of chorizo sausage, or bacon, or both, fried first to release their fats. I’ll probably pickle some of the remaining leaf stalks, but leave the plants that haven’t bolted in the ground, as they sprout once more early in spring for a much needed early season vegetable. All the first sowing of ruby chard bolted, but a second sowing of mid August is doing splendidly.

However, the star was really fennel. I gave up growing it years ago, thinking I could never get it to provide decent sized bulbs. But Scotland isn’t Italy, and this season I harvested plants as soon as the stems began to elongate. The flavour of the small scots bulbs was absolutely perfect, liquorice, anise, dill, and its own special taste all combined. They were so good that none got cooked, going into the salad bowl instead. I also didn’t realise until I looked closely at the packet, that they can be sown in succession, something to which I shall pay great attention next season. I’ve just been pickling part of the second sowing I made as soon as I put the seed packet down.

And for next season? Well, I’m going to be less snooty about northern crops, runner beans especially, though they suffered this season too. I’m going to build a proper raised bed for the pumpkins, probably with extensions like a micro four poster bed, so I can put fleece over early and late, and also remember to do some hand pollination. Though the jungly climber sorts are fun to see, I’ll find out what bush types there are if any. Incidentally, pumpkin and squash flowers, with their delicious smell, are far better for cooking than most marrow/courgette flowers, even if somewhat smaller.  They areworth using too, for, recently in Spoleto, I had a fine pasta dish with diced asparagus, pumpkin flowers and a scatter of prawns. Delicious.

Oh, and I promise I will be a better weeder.

The Kindle book Old Fashioned Flowers is finding a good few buyers.  It describes seventy odd  genera,  often lists some delightful sorts still available.  There are hundreds of pictures.  I’m afraid there will be a slight gap before a similar work appears dealing with kitchen garden crops.  However, Georgian Gardens, with a long section on 18th century kitchen gardens should be on Kindle in a week or two.

If you buy, and enjoy, O.F.F., it would be lovely if you reviewed it.

Hope you enjoy the new posts…



About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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