29 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Hands up who loves November.

The unlikeable month. Single digit celsius days. Air full of dead leaves. The weather gets too interesting and that October cold gets all flu-like.

At any other time of year being poorly is a minor disaster on the family farm. Last week, though, it merely provided an unusual opportunity to plan. Despite being conscious of the rigours of self-sufficiency, my natural tendency is to take a pitchfork to planning. I confess it’s really only a happy accident that I’ve planted lots of soft fruit on the field. All that animal protein out there with a leg at each corner? Acquired on a whim! 

However, I must now formally concede that improvisation isn’t the mother of reliable eating. Boringly, one man with six acres, a box or two of seeds, and that deadline approaching fast, needs a meticulously prepared strategy. It was, therefore, high time to gather up the sporadic, half-remembered vegetable growing success stories and to knock up a rudimentary menu for next year’s eating.

Whereas most normal vegetable gardeners would focus on what they like to eat, my task is significantly different. The priority is eating at all! That is not usually a difficulty between June and now when the distance between sowing and eating is measured in days. It’s those long, late winter months before much shoots or leafs that are the scariest prospect. As a result, the league table of priority vegetables I’ve compiled has some surprising contenders. Lurking among the obvious staples such as potatoes and tomatoes are unlovely oddities such as winter radishes. 

I’ve been very rude about this particular vegetable in the past. But now I must eat my words (probably a bit tastier than the radish). It falls into an important category of winter roots which won’t grow much in the dead season but will sit quite happily in the frozen ground until you’re desperate enough to eat them. I grew them very successfully last year and fed them to a friend’s horse. Next winter I might not be feeling so sharing. (I might even eat the horse…).

Another marginal edible that a self-respecting allotmenteer wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, but which might prove central to my dreary pantheon of wintry vegetables is – the dandelion. No really. France still remembers her peasant roots and accordingly you can still buy seeds for an improved dandelion. Named variety and everything. It’s a precious source of new growth when all else is dormant – you force it like a chicory, apparently:

So, in the brave old world of self-sufficiency, I’ll be growing giant dandelions before I even look at a packet of aubergine seeds. I’ll be nurturing cabbages and cauliflowers which crop in February but disdaining the same brassicas that come in summer.

Strange, isn’t it?