Gardening Tips from Daylesford’s Market Gardener

Our gardens are getting more attention than ever. We garnered some top tips from Jez Taylor, Head of the Market Garden at Daylesford’s organic farm in the Cotswolds:

What’s growing at Daylesford at the moment?

We’ve just enjoyed 6 weeks of warm, dry weather which has allowed us to start the new season. Onions, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, beans, beets, chard and spinach are now on the go. We also have 8 poly-tunnels where we can grow salad and herbs in winter and we’re now transitioning to plant up cucumbers, chillis, peppers and tomatoes as well as cut flowers.

How has Daylesford’s production been affected by Covid-19?

Our kitchens are busier than ever. The restaurants might have closed, but we’ve switched to e-com and a lot of our staff have moved over into our production kitchens. This time last year we were producing 15,000 ready meals in a week, this year we peaked with 33,000! The high demand means there’s a lot of produce to grow to keep up. Just this week we also launched our British veg boxes that need to be filled (These can be ordered here, £15 per week).

What’s the best thing to grow on a London windowsill?

Windowsills can be tricky as they are extreme environments. Plants are exposed to wind and can get hot, catching little rain, so you have to look after them almost as if they were in a glass house. Whilst bigger containers require less watering, small pots on the windowsill require a lot of watering. I would advise drought tolerant herbs here, the type that can stand the odd long weekend where they’re abandoned! Think thyme and oregano, lemon verbena and French tarragon – any herbs you associate with the South of France can typically tolerate a bit of drought. Another good one is mint – black peppermint for infusions, salads and to make raita, plus spearmint for cooking.

What about basil? How do you keep a supermarket potted basil alive?

Opt for Greek basil if you can, as it has smaller leaves and will grow well if kept inside. It’s also very intense in flavour so you can just sprinkle the leaves over food. The fatter basil (traditionally for pesto etc.), is the type you often find in the supermarket and it’s designed to look lush to appeal to customers, but what you often find is that once you’ve picked off the first bout of leaves you’re left with lots of leggy stalks. Being leggy means they are competing – and need to be thinned out and given more space to flourish. Look after your basil and it ought to last all summer delivering continuous new growth.

Any advice on growing summer salad?

The trick here is in the timing. My advice is to take 10 garden pots, and sow salad seeds in one pot per week for 10 weeks. That way you will have a succession of young growth, one pot per week. It’s about managing the growth and you’re able to eat the tastier young leaves without being lumped with masses to eat at once. You could put different varieties in each pot so you’re eating a different summer salad from week to week. Young spinach takes 4 weeks from sowing the seeds to harvesting. Oak lettuce leaf is also great, plus lush herbs like chives and sorrel. Rocket is more problematic and can attract pests. On a balcony you could plant mange tout or even better, sugar snap peas. These climb up a vertical space (you’ll need sticks or a trellis) and look pretty too. Early on you can eat the tips in a salad and later, when the pods come you can obviously eat these too. A top variety is the pink flowering Carouby de Maussane.

How can you stop squirrels and other bigger pests in the garden?

You need to get a cat – they’ll keep squirrels away. If the cats themselves are the problem then a thin scattering of old holly leaves will deter them from your garden. They hate the spikes and will avoid sitting on them at all costs and find somewhere else to do their business!

People have been madly foraging wild garlic. What can we look forward to foraging in May? 

Very little is as thrilling as wild garlic. You’ll find wild chives and wild leek in Cornwall. Otherwise you can’t beat a nettle. Be sure to wear gloves and then take the tips of the nettle – they’re best bit. Nettles are hugely nutritious, being high in silicon which is rare in the veggie world. Use them as you might spinach – to give flavour to omelettes or flatbreads, to make gnocchi or even in sag aloo. If you’re picking in an urban environment go at least 50 yards from a road and be sure to wash the leaves very well before use.

What summer fruit could we grow even in a small garden without a fruit cage?

Strawberries! The only soft fruit that will give you fruit in the first year of growth are strawberries. They’re so easy to grow – the only bother is that they require daily watering but since we’re in lockdown at home that shouldn’t be a problem this year. Even big juicy ones can be grown in a small space, working particularly well in a hanging basket or pots that are raised off the ground out of reach of mice. Also be conscious of blackbirds – you may need to buy a net or dream up your own, and remember to remove the runners after fruiting at the end of the summer.

Another good soft fruit to grow in pots are blueberries. These require acidic soil conditions which is why they’re difficult to grow in the south of England where we have alkaline soil. They thrive in pots where we can adjust the soil acidity with liquid fertiliser and are pretty drought tolerant too, so give them a try. Plant half a dozen blueberry bushes – each in it’s own 2-gallon pot and you’ll get a handful of fruit from each plant in the 2nd year and then up to a kilo in the third year.

Which plants especially encourage insects/bees and how can we help these species?

Flowers encourage insects and bees. Essentially they are looking for nectar, for their next meal. So think about incorporating lots of flowers into your garden. English marigolds are great because they are very easy to sow from seed and they’re edible too, likewise borage flowers fast. Insects – particularly hover flies which are a great predator for controlling aphids – love flowers of the umbelliferae family ie. parasol or umbrella shaped things like cow parsley, fennel or dill. Fennel is a great thing to have about – not only for using fresh in salads but the seeds are wonderful too for flavouring chutneys and infusions. A mixture of green and bronze fennel looks great planted together in the garden, and the green is especially vigorous and hard to kill.

What’s your favourite herb?

Lemon verbena. It smells so amazing. I’d love to tell you I knock up a lemon verbena granita on a Saturday night. I don’t, but doesn’t that sound good?!

And finally, which flower do you recommend growing from seed?

Sweet peas. Sow them now and you’ll have flowers the by the end of July and through until September. You can order my top sweet pea selection in seed packets (£4 at Daylesford).

For more tips on growing sweet peas, see here. Daylesford’s Instagram has lots of regular updates from Jez with tips and tricks from the Market Garden. The Daylesford  Gardening Hamper, £225 contains everything you need to get started in the garden, including organic sweet pea seeds ready for planting. 

— Daisy Allsup
28th April 2020