While the growing season in Beulah has yet to get into its stride, the over-wintered purple-sprouting broccoli has begun to shoot.
I have not always lived in the rural environment and mid Wales continues to teach me lessons that cannot really be learned in the comfort and security of the town. One such is the meaning of ‘The Hungry Gap’ and why the early spring is often referred to, in poetry, story and country lore, as an especially cruel time.
The potager on the last day of February had a beautiful feeling of the season turning. The light was stronger and it lasted longer. The sun felt warm in the sheltered spots out of the wind and there was no rain; the first such day for a very long time. My little seedlings in the greenhouse had put on visible growth in a week and there was germination in the radish rows outside, albeit protected with a cloche. I pottered about all day, and felt very optimistic.
However, right up until Victorian times, this was the period of greatest starvation risk. The winter stores were running low and new sowings would be as yet very small. Those over wintered leeks, carrots and salsify were all that remained and a long cold spring, rot caused by flooding or a miscalculation of the stored supplies could cause a sudden crisis just as the season promised a new start and a future of plenty.
The Victorians were great plant breeders and collectors as well as technical innovators. Many wonderful new varieties of crops were introduced at this time along with novel methods of forcing, protecting and persuading plants into growth both earlier and later than before. In this way cropping was extended at first for the wealthy and landed then later for all gardeners.
My great triumph this year is the first cutting of purple sprouting broccoli ever. It is the true broccoli, (the sort that you find in supermarkets with a large green head is in fact calabrese and dreadfully tricky to grow without spraying and other intervention)and hails from Italy and as, of course, most of that country has a cool, alpine climate many traditional crops thrived immediately they were introduced to Britain. I have grown it once before, which was a huge effort and steep learning curve, but the pigeons raided the lovely little heads just as they broke cover and I harvested none.
This year I have netted the bed and, sure enough, on 28 February, I cut eight small spears. We ate them steamed; a true delicacy and a delight. I hope that the plants will continue to push out a succession of tiny heads and that, by the time they are exhausted, the first of the lettuce will be ready for cutting and I shall pull a few early radishes.
Closing the ‘Hungry Gap’ seems a possibility. I feel that I have made a start, at least.