THE timing of our summer holidays this year was good and bad – on the plus side we left just as the heatwave in July finished and we got two more weeks of glorious weather. On the downside, we departed these shores just as things were getting really interesting in the veggie patch.
This year, I didn't need to worry about things back on the Home Farm, as my sister-in-law Siobhan came to stay in our house for two weeks. A keen GIYer herself, Siobhan kept things ticking expertly – feeding animals and watering the tunnel, etc.
I returned, curious to see how things had progressed in our absence, and boy, had things progressed. I think the best way to describe the veg patch currently would be to say that it's in a state of 'super-abundance'. Perhaps the word 'super' is superfluous in that phrase, but somehow the word abundance alone doesn't seem to cut mustard. It is beyond abundance.
Before we left there was plenty to eat from the veg patch. We had been enjoying beetroot, cabbages, turnips, potatoes, salads, broccoli, shallots, garlic, spinach and much more since spring. And, for a month or so, beans and peas were plentiful.
In fact, one night before we went on holidays, we spent several hours as a family shelling broad beans for the freezer to use up the glut. It started as an enjoyable, earthy family activity, with our kids (ages 4 and 6) enthusiastic, but after a number of hours it started to lose its lustre somewhat and by the end the kids were panned out in bed and we were left at the table grimly processing a never-ending pile of beans.
Joining all of these vegetables now comes a range of new, mid-summer crops in such startling copiousness that it is pretty much impossible to keep up.
Viewing the veg patch for the first time in two weeks, it was like the whole place had been put on a course of strong steroids while I was gone. The first thing that struck me was how little brown soil is visible anymore and how green the whole place looks. Plant foliage has moved in to fill every conceivable space.
Veg plants that were in early stages of growth (some even causing concern about how well they would do) have taken off and are growing robustly.
The onions are ready, their stems having fallen over and the bulbs looking fat and luscious. The rain that has fallen in the last few weeks will have helped that process. They are ready now to be lifted.
Courgettes deliver their own special brand of abundance with a doggedness that borders on rudeness – once again, I planted too many and we have more courgettes than we know what to do with. Good intentions about always harvesting them when small and pencil-length have long since been abandoned.
Two weeks away was even enough time for a couple of forbidding-looking marrows to establish themselves. Pleasingly, for the first time this year, we've a cracking crop of beautiful golden yellow courgettes (variety Parador) in addition to the more standard green ones (varieties Ambassador and Defender).
One of my favourite vegetables of all, Florence fennel, is also ready. This year I've grown the variety Romanesco which grows large while retaining its tenderness and the succulence of the bulbs. The recipe overleaf is my favourite way of eating it. I only grow maybe 10-12 bulbs, so it's a real summer delicacy.
Most exciting of all, the squash and pumpkin bed had secrets to reveal. Hiding among the prolific foliage I found dozens of fruits, including half a dozen enormous pumpkins – these are the old French heirloom variety vif d'Etampes, which produce the most beautiful flattened and ribbed fruits with a deep red-orange colour. Rising loftily out of the same bed are the sweetcorn and runner bean plants – the former almost ready to eat (tassels have formed at the end of the cobs, but we must wait for them to turn brown before eating) and the latter flowering beautifully.
In the legume bed, things are at a much different stage – the broad beans and early peas are nearly finished now, with the plants looking tired and spent. But the second sowing of peas is still abundant as are the wonderful purple dwarf French beans (variety Purple Teepee).
In the polytunnel, we're entering glut territory with tomatoes and cucumbers – hard to believe it's taken until mid-August to reach that stage with the tomatoes. They were ridiculously slow this year, but hopefully we will be rewarded with a longer season at the other end.
At this time of the year, the idea of going to the supermarket to buy any type of food seems, well, just plain daft. A change in eating habits (primarily eating far more vegetarian meals and less meat) is required in an attempt to keep up with the hard-working veg patch. When food is this delicious, 'tis no hardship.
* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.