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Planning your garden

My gardens have been a miscellaneous medley: a pocket handkerchief terrace here in Malta, which I try to brighten with bougainvillaea and jasmine, a delightful ‘Cornish’ country garden filled with hydrangeas, rose beds and in spring, a glory of daffodils, to an oversized ‘garden’ – a valley/hillside farm in Aberdeenshire in Scotland.

Maybe for every planning application approved, it should be mandatory to plant at least one tree
- Deborah Ratcliffe

Well, I have to admit I did have a tremendous amount of help from my husband and daughter on the farm – and, in reality, my contribution was modest. No way could I plough a straight furrow or drive a tractor, pulling a cart groaning under the weight of 12 large hay or straw bales, like my husband and daughter.

We used to laugh as Kate, our daughter (who was a wee thing in her teens), in order to change gear on our ancient Leyland tractors (no GPS, surround sound or heating in our old girls), had to jump up and stamp both feet on the clutch. It was amazing watching her negotiate a tractor and hay cart through a gap so narrow that even seasoned local farmers acknowledged she was pretty good for a quine (from the local Doric dialect meaning girl).

In Scotland I grew raspberries, and, not being biased, Scottish rasps are the best in the world. They are perfect for jam, ice-cream,or, dusted with icing sugar; caressed by agenerous whoosh of Kirsch.

I also loved growing cabbages – each year I tried to grow new and interesting varieties; I even grew the rather odd ornamental cabbage, now in vogue for flower borders. Unfortunately one year, our Vietnamese pot-bellied pig Bertie escaped from his run, ate the lot and turned over all the borders for me. Our free range hens were also a menace and eventually had to be housed in a mobile run, as they loved the tender shoots of barley growing in the fields.

On the farm, everything we grew – apart from the kitchen garden produce – was on a big scale. Acres of potatoes, barley and the traditional animal feed – turnips – different from ours here. It’s often called ‘Swede’ and has a wonderful mellow orangey-yellow colour, and totally delicious to eat by humans as well.

You can get them now in Malta – look out for firm brownish skin, almost toning down to a cream at the root end, and, with a fresh appearance – ignore the wrinkled or dry ones as they have no taste. Cook as a yummy slightly sweet veggie accompaniment: for example, mashed like a potato or thinly-sliced mixed with potato as a topping for beef casserole.

A useful tip if you want to grow the best produce is to check out the type of soil you have; get it tested to see exactly what will and what won’t grow – after all you don’t want to invest a fortune in expensive seeds to find they won’t grow successfully in your type of soil.

Also ask other local gardeners and check out the garden centres for practical advice. We regularly tested our farm soil to ensure we were optimising the land use and maintaining its fertility without resorting to an overdoseof chemicals.

Think carefully what you want to grow – and more importantly the maintenance required to keep the fruit, vegetable and flowers in peak condition. Once we went away for a week on holiday and came home to find the baby courgettes had turned into giant marrows. Utterly tasteless and really not worth eating at all. But we had grown them, so we stored kilo upon kilo in the freezer. It took a couple of years to eat them all.

When planning a vegetable garden, think about crop rotation – move the vegetables around to a different site each year; allow land to lie fallow and rest. Look at the light and shade areas .

Check out what grows in harmony with what: roses, for example, adore garlic close by as it keeps the aphids away; chives are also good at warding off aphids.

Marigolds are great planted around tomatoes, as they deter the worms that love the plant. When planning a new garden, revamping an old one or clearing up a waste piece of land, think about planting trees.

It not only adds to the beauty and tranquillity of the garden but helps make these ancient islands, so lacking in wooded and green areas, a better place to live.

Far too much desecration has gone on in the name of progress, with numerous beautiful gardens and glorious trees destroyed, so I feel it vital to plant as many as possible – even one helps.

Maybe for every planning application approved, it should be mandatory to plant at least one tree – a woodland perhaps forlarger projects.

Perhaps one day I can write, as Pliny the Younger said on a visit to Malta, that “you could walk as far as the eye could see under the shade of the olive tree.”

What a wonderful goal to aim for today!

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