Pushing the Boundaries

I’m investigating the potential of food-growing in shade, and am trying to push some boundaries. I’ve written about raising tomatoes in lesser amounts of sunshine, and want to explore other exciting and unusual possibilities.

My fire escape has full sun for a mere four hours a day before the sun’s trajectory takes it around the other side of the buildings when my pots are cast into solid shade. Boring brassicas are amongst the happiest here, as they like it cool and moist. But I really don’t have space for cabbage and broccoli and those things that traditionally take their time to become productive. Some in this family can be grown productively in shorter durations. Kale isn’t typically thought of as a salad plant, but it can be treated as a cut & come again (CCA). In this way. it offers repeat harvests.

In spring, I grew three types of kale, with red mizuna keeping them company. The mizuna, ‘Red Ursa’ and ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kales tasted fairly cabbagey in contrast to the “dinosaur kale” (‘Nero di Toscana’ or ‘Cavolo Nero’) which had a sweeter and more pleasant tang. As a CCA plant,  ‘Cavolo Nero’ does not develop the deep blue-black colour and savoyed texture of the mature leaves, more’s the shame. But it is the kale of choice for a salad leaf.

I attempted a summer sowing of brassicas too: the new mustard green ‘Dragon’s Tongue’; the salad mustard green ‘Golden Frill’ (a hybrid between a mustard and a kale); and turnip greens ‘Rapa Senza Testa’. The turnip greens didn’t germinate for some reason, and the mustard greens plus a second sowing of dinosaur kale were decimated by looping caterpillars. At first, I thought it was mollusc attack. On closer inspection I realised the problem was caterpillars of such slender girth that they were well disguised, being no thicker than the seedling stems. Where are the robins when you want them for pest control?

Far more exciting than any of these was Fuchsiaberry. All fuchsias have edible fruit but Thompson & Morgan bred the Fuchsiaberry to form fruit in greater quantities and with better flavour. I had high hopes for this and was very disappointed as I was able to garner only a very few berries, despite the fact that it flowered abundantly. This was also the experience of people I know who grew it in sunnier situations, so it seems the shade wasn’t hampering the harvest. Having said this, I am generally fond of fuchsia: it is a great attractor of hoverflies and skinny bees (I mean honey bees and solitary bees. I don’t know these bees well enough to distinguish between them visually) and it flowers over a long period.

Something else unexpected that I was excited to try was the cottage garden fave, love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). In his book ‘Grow For Flavour’, James Wong points up the seeds are edible and describes the taste as “virtually identical to purple grape sweets when bitten into”. Well, yes, it does have a certain fruitiness, but I’m not convinced I liked it. It kinda reminded me of the stinky chemical cleanser used by road-sweeping vehicles in central London! Love-in-a-mist proved a good companion to rosemary; when planted in a frill around the edge of the pot, it frothed up around the rosemary and protected it from whatever sap-sucking insect had been causing small pale dots on the foliage.

Other crops attempted which I hadn’t grown before were sorrel and celery leaf, both of which I liked and would grow again. I had another go at shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) which I grew several years ago but wasn’t keen on the flavour. I wondered if this was because I’d allowed the plant to become tall before picking so I tried it as a CCA, and still wasn’t keen. To me, the flavour was a touch metallic. Shungiku outgrew the celery leaf and sorrel, so is not best grown in the same pot… as I belatedly realised.

Although I’ve been focussing on esculents, I decided to grow flowers purely for their attractiveness to pollinators too. Love-in-a-mist and fuchsia had a dual purpose, but lobelia and alyssum also featured, as I read these tolerate some shade. Alyssum was a bit of a disaster but the lobelia is still flowering. It gave good pools of colour and I noticed over the summer that bees visited frequently.

Plans for 2017? One of my main aims is to introduce more contrasting colour so my photos aren’t all “green fuzz”. And I wasn’t happy with the hanging flower bags, so I might use over-the-railing containers instead. I’m also tempted to try a minarette apple, but I want to taste-test the varieties in question before I definitely opt for that. As always at this stage, imagination runs amok. But, of course, the reality may be somewhat different..

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