Will Giles was persuaded to add a veg plot to the Exotic Garden. He’s rather glad he did...

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The nursery here at the Exotic Garden has had a complete and utter makeover thanks to gardening extraordinaire Jamie Spooner.

Just before Christmas 2011 Jamie returned from spending a year in Australia fruit picking and travelling. Upon his return, he asked if he could live in my tree house in return for helping in the garden and of course I said yes! The first project he undertook was revamping the entrance garden (which I mentioned a few articles ago), but he then wanted to take on the chore of revamping the gardens rather run down and dilapidated nursery. I thought he was just going to tidy it up, but no - he decided that he wanted to do a complete makeover and also wanted to add a new vegetable garden as a personal project as well. With some scepticism – I agreed!

The nursery consisted of three rather ramshackle polytunnels of which only one was regularly used for overwintering all the gardens more tropical plants through the coldest months of the year, while the oldest tunnel was torn and tattered with a ground cover of brambles, Convolvulus and other pernicious weeds. It also housed an extremely large number of plastic pots we dubbed ‘pot mountain’. Once the new tunnel was erected the oldest tunnel was removed and the hard packed ground underneath dug over, eradicating brambles and a thick mat of the ‘Hedge Bindweed’ Calystegia sepium with its spaghetti-like roots which had spread under the old tunnel’s ’Mypex’ floor covering and also over pot mountain!

While the large polytunnel was being finished, I installed a path system in the new vegetable garden with pea shingle and pin-tiles from my old kitchen roof for edging. The tiles had been knocking around for about 18 years, waiting patiently for re-use. I am a bit of a hoarder knowing that things will come into use again at some point in the future as I love recycling things.

As well as creating an 8 x 8m veggie garden and a 8 x 10 polytunnel, Jamie amazingly found enough room in the nursery to also squeeze in a sitting area, with railway sleepers and a floor made of a thick layer of finely broken terracotta pots which I had been saving for many years – more hoarding! A friend’s four-year-old daughter loves visiting the garden as with shrieks of delight she can smash things, so with a small hammer and a large supply of pots Jessica is a very happy girl!

Unfortunately, I could only give Jamie scant advice on what to grow as the last time I grew any vegetables was way back when I was a child of ten and Jamie had never grown veggies before, hence this was very much a new venture for the Exotic Garden and completely outside my area of knowledge - but surely growing veggies couldn’t be that difficult, we thought? Over the last month or so many keen garden visitors have proffered advice on the correct way to grow vegetables, though most things seem to be doing OK – it’s fun learning through your mistakes, at least that way you remember.

Quite a few potato varieties were bought in the spring and ‘chitted’ in the tree house, with names like ‘Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy’ and ‘Shetland Black’ from Thompson and Morgan. All the potatoes are now enormous plants and some have already proven tasty as the first spuds were dug up on the evening of the summer solstice.

A few of the early plantings failed completely, such as the runner beans which sat miserably in cold wet soil for some weeks before deciding to give up the ghost completely as the weather this spring (‘what spring?’ you may ask) - was so cold, especially at night. All the potatoes were planted up and mounded into neat ridges which sat there for weeks before the first shoots tentatively broke the soil surface, but over the last month everything in the vegetable garden has grown with a vengeance, thanks to all the added compost and manure Jamie bucketed in.

One of the first veggies to be planted in the new garden was a row of radishes named ‘French Breakfast’. Despite the cold spring, they grew well and I was eating them straight from the ground in April. They were absolutely delicious and much better than the ones I grew in an old upturned dustbin lid in my bedroom as a boy. The early sowings of lettuce and dwarf French beans failed miserably as well and had to be re-sown. Thankfully the new ones are now growing fast and full of vigour. Buying strips of ready-growing small plants seems to be very popular now, so several strips of lettuces and pak choi were planted and have done very well indeed, though we are now getting rather tired of lettuce and can’t give them away fast enough!

Despite the rather cool weather this year most of the vegetables are now growing away nicely. The runner beans such as ‘Scarlet Emperor’ are now well above head height and covered in beautiful red flowers and buzzing with bees as are the creamy-yellow flowered climbing French beans. Several different types of courgettes have been grown and are now thumb-sized and growing rapidly with enormous leaves. They are probably planted too close to each other, nevertheless, Jamie keeps on shoehorning yet more vegetables into the plot, flying in the face of any rule book, but who cares, they look wonderful and very ornamental and put a smile on my face. Having only grown ornamental plants for most of my life with no edible value at all, I have been marvelling at how beautiful vegetables can be, as many have such an ornate leaf structure like the lush ‘Yugoslavian Red’ lettuce or the more traditional upright dark green cos, all planted in serried ranks. I always thought such edibles as cabbages were rather boring things - but no, purple cabbages are wonderful plants, with their gorgeous greyish purple foliage as is purple sprouting broccoli with its wonderful crinkle leaves. I think they all look far too good to eat really!

Marigolds and tagetes were also planted as they are supposed to keep munching insects at bay and they also add colour to the garden. Thinking of flowers, two tall 9ft wigwams were constructed out of canes collected from the bamboo garden. Sweet peas were planted around the base in early March which sat there sulking for ages, but over the last three weeks or so they have shot up and are now coming into bloom with their divine scent – what a wonderful addition to a vegetable garden as they will be perfect as cut flowers for the house as well as enjoying their beauty in the vegetable garden.

Did I mention we also have a new herb garden? How about all those tomatoes and aubergines and peppers? That is another story!

If you can drag yourself away from your own summer garden this weekend, why not pay the Exotic Garden a visit, where you can see the new vegetable garden as well as the new tropical polytunnel - that is another story too!

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