Some of the unusual and heritage vegetables, herbs and edible flowers Mandy Barber and Julien Skinner grow on their Devon smallholding may look a bit strange, but that doesn't matter: it’s all about the taste.
Mandy: When I moved in with Julien seven years ago, I took over his garden and turned it into a vegetable patch. His next-door neighbour was happy for us to dig her garden over as well, so we ended up with lots of veg.
We both love cooking and we wanted to grow interesting ingredients. We started off small, by planting a few frilly lettuces, and then we just got the bug.
I’ve always loved eating vegetables, but I’d never grown them before. In my previous career as an artist I moved a lot and our veg patches were the first time I’d ever had space to grow anything.
Garden plottingMandy: We needed more space to grow our vegetables and gradually we came across other people locally who also wanted to grow stuff. When a couple of fields came up for sale, everyone threw money into a hat and we formed a little company to buy one of them and create a shared vegetable garden. We now own an eighth share of a five-and-a-half-acre field.
Our group has a diverse mix of people, including a professor, an ex-nurse and a young couple with children. We didn’t know each other very well when we bought the plot but it’s been harmonious. We have meetings and only go ahead with plans for the field if everyone’s happy.
We’re the only ones who are trying to run our plot as a business. The other people in the group are just feeding their families and there’s also a Forest Garden, which is a long-term sustainable project.
It took about 18 months of hard work before we could start growing anything. First, we had to put in the fences and dig across a neighbouring field to lay in pipes for water. We also constructed a large polytunnel – before we had that, our house was full of pasting tables covered with seed trays.
Julien: There’s still a lot to do – we’re putting in a big pond that will hopefully attract wildlife (although so far all we’ve attracted is mice and deer) and planting hundreds of trees.
We're self-taught gardenersMandy: Apart from going on a couple of one-day courses, we’ve found out how to grow things by reading piles of gardening books and through hands-on experience, learning through trial and error.
If something works I do it again the next year. If not, I don’t. When I first started I used to plant things too close together and sow way too many seedlings. Now I think to myself: I’m not going to sow 500 lettuces in one go, I’m going to do six at a time. You just learn.
Julien: My granddad was a professional gardener and he used to teach me about it, but it wasn’t until I met Mandy that I really got interested. I like to see the changing seasons – in the summer, the veg patch and polytunnel are like a jungle.
Mandy: I enjoy sowing stuff and watching it come up. I’ve been staring at the bare ground for weeks, waiting for the garlic to grow and wondering whether I’ve done something wrong. Then suddenly it’s shot up and you go, aaah, the garlic’s all right.
I love going to bed at night with a tray of earth on the windowsill, then the next morning there’s a seedling there with two leaves. Wow, how does that happen overnight? I never ever get tired of seeing that life process.
It's fun to grow unusual veggiesMandy: If nobody grows rare plants or saves their seeds, the line will finish and that will be the end of them. It seems such a shame for ancient varieties to die out.
We grow medieval and old-fashioned vegetables because it’s fun to see what they look and taste like, and whether they’re actually edible. Lots of vegetables that were growing centuries ago are making a bit of a comeback as people’s interest in gourmet ingredients grows.
Other gardeners give us seeds and we also buy them from abroad – there’s a place in France that’s got a really good heritage collection.
We’ve discovered all kinds of interesting vegetables that you can't get in the supermarkets. There's a whole world of edible delights out there that we can't wait to grow. It's amazing what you can grow in Devon!
We’re big fans of perennials [plants that live for more than two years]. Once they’re established they can be harvested year after year, and often all year round, so there’s always something to eat. Perennials are also more nutritious as they have years to accumulate minerals. Growing perennials also benefits the soil, as it's not constantly being cultivated or left bare.
Julien: I love the challenge of growing new and exotic things. Once you’ve tasted Spigarello, you don’t want to eat any other greens – it’s so delicious. Why isn’t there any in the supermarkets? It would fly off the shelves!
Mandy: It’s interesting to grow stuff that people haven’t seen or tasted before, like Mexican cucamelons, which are little baby ‘mouse’ melons. They grow on a vine and are the size of an olive, so children love them. They’re crunchy, sweet and taste like a cross between a cucumber and a melon.
Our weird and wonderful vegChinese artichokes (aka witchetty grubs), pictured
Cook these nutty-tasting veg with Chinese or Japanese food. You can use them like water chestnuts – they're great stir-fried with ginger, chilli and garlic.
These long, skinny perennials used to be a main food source throughout Europe, but when round potatoes were introduced in the 18th century they went out of fashion because they’re fiddly to peel and cook.
Skirrets take a long time to grow but once they do, you'll have food for years. They taste like a cross between a parsnip, carrot and potato.
A lovely, crunchy French bean – literally a yard long, one feeds two people!
These grow about seven feet tall and throw up thistle heads that are similar to an artichoke head. The stems are edible – they have a fleshy texture and a smoky, artichokey taste.
This is a lovely thing. Last year, one travelled the whole length of the polytunnel – about 10 metres – in two months, and you couldn’t even walk through there. Its dangling fruits hung down like cavemen’s clubs and curled around everything they touched. They’re like triffids: each fruit can grow up to a metre long and may weigh 15 or 20lb! In taste, they're somewhere between butternut squash and sweet courgette.
Ulluco tubers: the M&Ms of the vegetable world (pictured, with oca, another South American tuber)
Our latest thing is ulluco tubers, which are Andean root vegetables. They are bright pink, green, yellow and purple and look like sweeties. When you dig them up it’s like finding buried treasure.
Red-hot chilli peppers
The padrón peppers we grew a couple of years ago were so tasty that this year we grew some more. We also grew other varieties of pepper and we don’t know whether they started mating with each other or what, but we ended up with padrón peppers that you could probably jump-start a car with.
Our Italian sweet peppers, which are supposed to be for stuffing, caught the padrón heat. You couldn’t even put a tiny bit on your tongue – it was like trying to eat a whole giant Scotch bonnet!
Rouge crapaudine beetroot
This ancient variety is so ugly it looks inedible and not at all appetising when you dig it up but it’s the most delicious beetroot you’ll ever taste.
It’s called crapaudine because of its warty, wrinkly skin (crapaud means toad in French). In France, they wrap the beetroot whole and bake them on the embers of a fire.
We sing to our plants!Mandy: Many allotments are still run along the lines of 1940s agricultural practices: brown earth and straight rows, with a four-bed rotation system. These methods have their place, but there are easier and better ways to grow food.
Our veg patch is laid out more like a medieval city than a traditional plot. I like to have lots of little paths and lots of perennials growing alongside the annuals, because it looks much more beautiful.
In summer, there’s an explosion of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Plus, you’re less likely to have pests if you’ve got variety. Slugs like nothing more than a straight row of lettuces to munch their way through.
I find it's good to grow things in a polyculture-type way, with many different edibles thriving side by side. My veg garden has lots of little micro rotations going on rather than huge beds allocated to one plant type.
We use a no-dig system. Once we’ve made the raised beds and shaped the paths with wood chips, we just add compost and green manures to the top of the soil all the time. Apart from a bit of light weeding on the top, nothing is disturbed, so the worms and other creatures don’t get flung up into the daylight. We let the worms do all the work for us.
I talk to my plants. And I sing to them when I’m here by myself. Little seedling songs of appreciation and encouragement.
Veg for all seasonsMandy: We haven’t been on holiday for seven years – I don’t like leaving my seedlings. In summer I’m working on the veg patch for at least eight hours a day. We’re pretty hardcore: we’re there every day all year round, throughout the winter too. There’s always work to be done.
Julien: Last summer we went away for a weekend and she was worrying about the vegetables…
Mandy: I’m precious about my seedlings! It took so much work to set everything up for us to go away, from setting up the irrigation to getting somebody to look after the chickens. In the end we wondered whether it was worth it.
Growing vegetables is hard work. Barrowing loads of manure across the field is tough, and I do a lot of weeding.
Summer is my favourite season – it’s lovely to feel warm when you’re working outside.
Julien: It can get up to 50˚C in the polytunnel, so we have to be here by 9am in summer to let the air in and water everything. It’s quite high maintenance.
I love being on the field at night. There’s an amazing view and it’s really nice to come up here and light the fire. On bonfire night and New Year’s Eve, you can see firework displays going off all over the place as well.
Garden ups and downsMandy: We thought it’d be really romantic to plant Phacelia in between the rows of potatoes. The idea is that once the plant has grown, you chop it and dig it into the ground, where it works as a green manure. If you let it flower, it has the most stunning perfumed blue flowers and the bees love it.
When it bloomed there was a sea of blue pompom flowers and we thought, this is perfection: we’ve got flowers, potatoes and the bees are happy!
What we didn’t realise was that the Phacelia had taken all the root space so when we dug up the potatoes they were absolutely tiny! Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Last summer, our little Chanterais melons did really well because it was so hot. When we went to pick some, though, we discovered that the mice had gone inside, eaten all the flesh and left a perfect-looking shell. We thought we still had 10 melons to pick but there were only these complete melon-shaped husks with no flesh inside!
We grow organic foodMandy: We grow everything organically, so we don’t use any chemicals or pesticides. We make our own garlic spray and we put peppermint balls into the polytunnel to deter the mice.
We make comfrey fertiliser to feed our plants and use companion planting to ward off pests and let the plants help each other naturally.
Some days I’ll spend hours picking the caterpillars off my brassicas by hand and relocating the slugs.
I used to get really upset about the slugs because it’s so much work raising the plants, only for them to be eaten, but now I’m much more laid back about it. This is how nature is. Growing organically takes a lot more time but the food tastes so much better.
All of our plants have been nurtured and hand-reared: we’ve looked after each one individually. A lot of care and love goes into them.
We don’t mind losing some of our produce but you don’t want to lose a whole patch so I make cloches out of old plastic water bottles and put them over the really precious plants to protect them when they’re small. Once they get to a reasonable size they’re usually all right.
I sewed miles of net on my sewing machine to protect my brassicas last summer. In the winter I like to tuck up my veg in fleece to keep them cosy.
We’d love to make a living from our vegMandy: We started off aiming to grow our own food and now we’re trying to make a living from it. We store all our garlic and onions and it’s very rare that we have to go and buy any vegetables. We do buy oranges and bananas. The baby bananas we grew in our front garden this year were too green to eat.
I give talks in schools and village halls and take unusual vegetables for the audience to sample. We also do a mini veggie box and go to local food festivals.
Julien: We used to sell our veg at a local Sunday market once a month, but it wasn’t viable – we’d be up on the field picking veg in the middle of the night and spend hours loading up the truck, all for about £4 an hour. We also found that we were growing loads of the same thing just to sell, which isn’t really what we want to do.
Mandy: We want to be creative and sustainable, and specialise in rare and perennial plants that people want to have a go at cultivating. Over the winter we sell plants to other people so they can start growing the more unusual things themselves. That brings us a better income than running a market stall.
Some of our little tubers have gone as far afield as California and Hungary via my website, Facebook and word of mouth. Hopefully our business will grow organically!
Find out more about Incredible Vegetables.
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Come and chat on Logarty talk.