The Year of the Giant Tomato

It is the Year of the Oversized Tomato and Onion here and I have felt myself doing an Alison Holst impersonation, obliged to deal with the abundance of this produce.

Last year was the Year of the Green Bean. A prolific harvest saw us eating fresh green beans for weeks on end as we valiantly munched our way through a series of well planned crops. Silly me anticipated eating lots of green beans again this year but we only had a mere handful of meals.

I confess that I have never grown a vegetable in my life. And the Husband who has taken on the role of gatherer and provider, if not hunter, feels a frequent failure. This is because he has been growing home veg for around 35 years now and he feels that he should have mastered the skills of consistent production so we do not have this feast or famine of crops. He does not feel at all a failure as far as the onions and tomatoes go, but the lack of green beans caused some angst.

But 2007 is also memorable for the melon harvest and Mark appears to have overlooked his success in this area. Every year he starts off melon plants (both rock and water melon types) in small pots and quite frequently other priorities take over and the melons either fail entirely to make the transition from small pot into the garden or this event takes place too late to enable the crop to mature before autumn. Not this year. He has been steadily bringing melons indoors for weeks.

My standing joke is that the quality of the vegetable garden is closely allied to his stress levels. When life gets too much for him, he retreats out to his vegetable garden. Displacement behaviour is the term, I understand. While the rest of the garden may be clamouring for attention, there are times when he can be found gently push hoeing amongst his carrots. It matters not a whit that you can buy an entire sack of Chinese onions at Moshims for a mere $5 whereas ours probably represent closer to $100 in terms of costs of production and labour. The Chinese onions can not compare with home produce.

I admit I live in fear of the prospect of the advent of the Year of the Broccoli (a vegetable I believe is best served creamed in soup with blue cheese), the Year of Cauliflower (passable only in sauce with walnuts) or the Year of the Cabbage (very few options to make this veg edible, in my opinion). But he is also talking of taking over the growing of herbs which would be useful as long as I can lead him to the understanding that herbs are ideally best grown within three metres of the kitchen door step. It is really handy if you can reach your herbs without having to put shoes on, I feel.

Do not get put off growing herbs by the intimidating traditions of herbalists and herb gardens. In the days before modern medicine, herbs had an importance which went way beyond mere food flavouring. If you want to re-create a medieval herb garden, or the suburban equivalent of it, there are many books which will show you traditional designs and give you all the information you may or may not need. Personally I could not be bothered with herb gardens which need to contain such plants as artemisia – commonly referred to as Wormwood and responsible for the raw ingredients for absinthe. And the problem with a designated herb garden is that herbs are not a single genus which all like the same conditions. Growing herbs in a modest and utilitarian way involves finding the right conditions for different herbs within the three metres of the back door. It is a myth that all herbs like poor, stony, freedraining and sunny conditions. Sure it is true of many of the Mediterranean ones, but others are more of your clumping perennial or shrub and like well cultivated, rich soil.

We do not pretend to be herb growing experts but the short list of what I could not live without as fresh herbs includes the following:

  1. Marjoram and oregano – vital for tomato dishes, Italian flavours and quite amenable to being added to any dish really. Clumping perennials which like well cultivated, fertile soil.
  2. Bay tree – just the common old culinary laurus nobilis. A tough shrub which does lend itself to shaping if you want a lollipop tree but certainly needs some restraining or it will get large. Can suffer from thrips so best in open conditions with good air movement. Beware of its suckers getting away too.
  3. Parsley – you can never have too much parsley. Chopped parsley is just the most useful herb imaginable and can even atone for a lack of green vegetable in the rest of the meal. The flat leafed Italian parsley is highly rated but any fresh parsley is great. It is a biennial (goes to seed in its second year) and if you make sure that at least a plant or two can go to seed each year you can keep it coming.
  4. Mint – lots of different mints are around but as far as I know all are fairly invasive and will thrive in moist conditions. It is often best to plant in a decent sized pot or planter bag sunk into the garden to stop mint’s runaway ambitions.
  5. Sage – a small woody plant which likes decent drainage and will tolerate the dry.
  6. Thyme – a gentle spreader which is happy alongside sage.
  7. Rosemary – as for sage and thyme. Can get considerably larger, however. It is a woody shrub unless you get one of the prostrate forms.
  8. Basil – I buy it in pots at the supermarket because the slugs beat me to it at home. It is a summer annual.
  9. Lime leaves –ours is a Tahitian lime and the young leaves sure are a great boon to all aromatic dishes.
  10. Fennel or dill – love them. You can buy a pot at the supermarket, use the leaves and then plant it out when it starts to look very sad and it will shoot again. Best treated as an annual though it is technically a perennial.

I would add tarragon to that list but we have not grown it successfully yet. No coriander which is altogether too reminiscent of those green vegetable stink bugs for us. At least if you have a basic repertoire of plants in your garden, it saves the endless pots of fresh herbs cluttering up the window sill and is cheaper than constantly buying new pots from the supermarket.