Summer solstice in the veg garden

Summer Solstice: Preparing Christmas Dinner

At this time of summer solstice, with its 16 hours of daylight, verdant green growth and long sunsets, summer in its prime but it's actually a good idea just to check that our Christmas dinner at the other end of the year is coming on nicely.

Parsnips and leeks are two essential components of winter in the vegetable garden.   To have them available fresh just outside the backdoor right the way through to spring is the gardener's aim.  They can be part of, or accompany, any Sunday roast, whether it is meat, beans or nut.  They contain a sweet substance that was apparently very useful before the advent of cane sugar.  They seem to do quite well in Devon and stand through any amount of rain and snow.  They are just essential.


Parsnips are one of the few seeds that I sow directly into the ground.  First you need a deep topsoil.  You aren't going to get that overnight and you need to work at it over the years to incorporate more subsoil into your topsoil.  Secondly you need to be able to cultivate the seed bed to a fine tilth.  This is where the Devon weather often causes problems.  In spring 2014 with its rain and floods in the SW I couldn't get on the land to cultivate it at all till sometime in March.  This delayed all seed sowing.  If you look at the back of a parsnip seed packet it will probably recommended sowing between February and May.   Generally I aim for the second half of April because that is the earliest that I can get a seedbed ready and because there is some warmth in the soil to aid germination.  Germination can take weeks and that means that I take steps to stop my dogs running all over the seedbed.  The viability of the seed may also be low.  There is a traditional recommendation to sow 2 or 3 seeds at each 'station' along the row, rather than spreading them equally along the row.  Hopefully at least one seed will germinate at each station and then you just thin them out.  It's not something that worked for me.

In 2014, after the rains, I made a classic mistake, which was to manure the ground before parsnips were sown.  I meant well.  I ended up with some huge branching parsnips that weren't actually very easy to use. Parsnips like rich soil so manuring the year before parsnips is a good idea.

We are now in June some weeks after the parsnips germinated.  They need hoeing down the rows to keep the weeds down.  Soon you will need to go along the rows pinching out all the excess plants.  When the plants get larger they will look after themselves.  I've never had any pests on parsnips but do lose some plants through canker.

Parsnips are said to be best after there has been a frost in the ground.  They lose their foliage in winter.  This starts to regrow again in spring and is a sign that you need to use up your parsnips.  They will start to produce a hard, stringy core that supports then production of a flower shoot.  If you end up with excess parsnips at the end of the season then consider freezing them or try parsnip chutney or jam or wineParsnip crisps may also be possible.

I sow leeks in April and probably don't get to eat them till November.  I'm sure many other gardeners hurry them along and harvest them earlier but personally I really have little need of them in early autumn when the harvest is at its height.  I initially sow leek seeds in modules.  When they have germinated and put on a couple of inches (in May or June) I transplant them to deep flowerpots.  They are transplanted again into open ground in late summer.   The usual transplanting technique is to create a deep hole with a dibber, soak this with a watering can and then drop the leek plant into it.  This gives the plant a good chance to establish itself in dry weather.   It also helps to increase the amount of tender white leek stem by getting the plant deeply into the soil.   You can also achieve this by earthing up the plants later as they grow.

Leeks are generally considered relatively pest-free but there is some concern that the leek moth is colonising this country from mainland Europe as a result of climate change.  Leeks can be harvested throughout the winter.   Any leeks left over in spring can be chopped up and frozen for use during the summer if desired. 

In the kitchen leeks can generally be used as a form of mild onion but there are some classic leek dishes such as leek and potato soup and leeks in cheese sauce.  Because I have a Rayburn alight during the winter I have taken to making vegetable stock and the tops of leeks are an ideal component of this. A slow cooking stock spreads an excellent savoury smell around the house and it definitely helps produce tasty sauces and soups.  Sometimes I leave the stockpot on the stove for days and keep adding vegetable tops and peelings and occasionally leftovers. I freeze the stock using an ice-cube tray and then store in bags or boxes. 

Jerusalem Artichokes


Jerusalem Artichokes are growing fast in the garden at present.  They may eventually reach 9 or 10 feet high. They are not related to the globe artichoke but are a tuberous sunflower and tend to flower in September in my garden.  In the U.S. they are known as 'sunchoke' and apparently our name for them is an anglicised form of the Italian 'girasole'. 

Jerusalem artichokes are ridiculously easy to grow - just dig a trench and plant the tubers.  They seem to have no pests in this country.  They can be harvested after the frosts have killed off the stem and leaves.  I've known people dry the stems for kindling as they are too difficult to easily compost. I cut down the stems of the whole bed all at once with a grass hook. The tubers vaguely resemble ginger roots and because they are knobbly they are more difficult to clean and prepare than potatoes.  You might find that garden centres now sell varieties that are less knobbly.  No matter how much you harvest them you will probably find that they return again next summer.  A bed of artichokes can be so thick and dense that it provides good cover for fowls and my bed is on one side of a chicken run.   I've known a whole field to be used as summer pheasant cover.

Jerusalem artichokes have a sweet, smoky flavour that can be quite strong. They are excellent as an intense, earthy winter soup or as part of a winter roast vegetable dish.   Jerusalem artichokes contain the carbohydrate inulin, instead of starch.  This can make them a useful food for diabetics.  Inulin can break down into a sweet, fructose sugar in storage so when cooked Jerusalem artichokes are sweeter and nuttier than potatoes.  This sweetness also makes it possible to use them, thinly sliced, to add interest to salads.  Inulin, not being a starch, is not digested until it reaches the bacteria in the human intestine.  Digestion here can release significant quantities of carbon dioxide and methane and this accounts for the nickname 'jerusalem fartichokes'.

Rainwater harvesting

The permaculturalists have a saying that every new building should be designed to capture its own water and energy.  In the Devon hills, where the season of mud lasts from October to April, it can be difficult to understand the concept of water shortage and the importance of rainwater capture.

We'd have to go a long way to match California and its mismanagement of water resources - excessive use, mis-use and lack of response to climate change but it's still easy to take water for granted.  It takes at least 100 litres to water my veg garden after a hot summer's day and I'm not keen to take that from the mains even though I'm not metered.


Rainwater capture using IBC tanks are one answer. IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container) tanks are part of the detritus and excess of fossil-fuel society.  They are a disposable standard shipping container, one metre cube - 1000 litres and are spat out by the industrial system as waste product.  Mine had previously held shampoo.  They are available for around £35-40 on ebay on from local small-ads.  They are light and sturdy and can easily be carried, when empty, by 2 people.  They also include a tap that can be attached to a standard garden hose.  It's relatively straightforward to lead water from a rainwater gutter into an IBC.  If you raise your IBC off the ground then you can get a good water pressure to dispense your rainwater via a garden hose.  I have one IBC but would like three.  My IBC pipes water into 2 x 200 litre plastic barrels inside the polytunnel.  

I notice that there's quite a lot of material on youtube concerning building aquaponics systems using IBC containers.  That's not something I've tried but I can see it's a possibility.