Guernsey Press

It’s showtime

Our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, reflects on the joys of the horticultural show season...

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Scarlet Emperor and Madeira Maroon Beans. (Picture by Richard Leighton-Hammond) (31163514)

IT’S the middle of August, and almost like three buses coming along at once, a second heat wave has just ended, with the daytime temperature dropping considerably in London from around 34C to a rather sultry 20C or so today.

We had some rain yesterday, though it did little other than freshen the leaves on plants… and this morning, Thames Water has announced a hosepipe ban so it’ll be a matter of many trips to the nearest allotment tap to water what we do have growing – and on that, our plot, like many around us, is looking much more like it’s the middle of September, with leaves on our climbing beans, our cucumbers and our squash beginning to yellow and fade, showing that they’re giving up on the year and their best is behind them.

It all feels a month too soon.

At the beginning of September, we’ve the Ealing & Hanwell Allotment Association Annual Show – it’s affiliated with the Royal Horticultural Society, so I’m sure its Horticultural Show Handbook will be readily available to ensure proper entries and proper judging. As we grow such a wide variety of vegetables on our plot, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the entry form to pop into my inbox; I was sure that for the very first time I’d be putting out the pick of some harvests for the world to see – well, at least the judges and any locals interested enough to attend.

I’d had dreams of three white paper plates hosting five bountiful bean pods each, another showcasing a bunch of perfectly plump beetroot tangled together with raffia, one more with telephone box red tomatoes oozing their scent, and yet another white paper plate hidden beneath a weighty Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat squash the size of a house.

Well, those were the dreams…

Our beans, in particular, were my big high hopes. Three varieties this year: Golden Gate, Madeira Maroon and one that we call Shaz’s ‘Black’ Scarlet Emperor runner beans – as they have a hidden difference. Golden Gate is a truly fabulous yellow flat French bean, vigorous in growth, vibrant in colour and winner of an Award of Merit from the RHS. To call it yellow is definitely an understatement as when it’s ripe the mature pod is a pale gold. Largely keeping its colour when lightly steamed, it’s a crisp, buttery sensation for the mouth, though is it the vibrant yellow of the pods that tricks my mind into thinking it’s buttery? Whatever, it’s a winner on our plates.

Next comes Madeira Maroon, a wonderful pale green flat French bean that always tends to curl a little, or a lot. Again, simply steamed, it’s waxy and full of flavour, and this little gem has another trick up its sleeve. If you let it ripen to full maturity, the beans inside make the most wonderful substitution for borlotti beans. In fact, in our house we prefer the speckled nature of these beans that turn maroon when they dry – they’re named after the bean colour and the archipelago where the Seed Detective came across them some years back. For us they’re another absolute winner, and a ‘must grow’ each year.

Finally, we come to Shaz’s ‘Black’ Scarlet Emperor runner beans. A fellow allotmenteer near Swindon sent us these seeds some years ago, though then they were wonderfully bog-standard. Having saved seed year-on-year and grown them for several seasons, I noticed that some of the actual beans inside pods of last year’s harvest were shiny and jet black. Where there was a whole pod like this, we saved the seed from the plant and have sown only these for our runners this year; the pods are looking strong, green and rough as you’d expect, and it’ll be interesting to see whether their beans come true or revert to the native colour of mauve with black streaks.

Of course, August is a major horticultural show month throughout the UK, as it is also in our wonderful Crown Dependency of Guernsey and its Bailiwick. The South Show, the West Show and the North Show were always marked off on our kitchen calendar and in Mum’s Guernsey Dairy diary. It was a day out for the whole family, and my first port of call would always be the exhibition tents, filled to the gunwales with fruits and vegetables of all types; jars of jams, chutneys and lemon curd weighing down tables; cakes and bakes galore; miniature gardens on a tray; and flower arrangements and vases of resplendent dahlias and chrysanthemums bursting their colour.

To my child’s eye, everything in the show tents was perfect; I seemed to understand even at that age the skill, work and time that had gone in to growing and showing something as simple as five identical runner beans on a plain white plate or taking first prize in the Victoria Sandwich class. Like so many things in life, it’s not necessarily about us doing things all the same, it’s about each of us having our idiosyncrasies and ways of doing something well that makes us special and stand out from the crowd rather than being part of the herd, however splendid that herd may be.

Moving out of the show tents made of rough-hewn sail-like cloth, many of the showgrounds had areas that celebrated crafts of old – blacksmiths, menders of fishing nets, lobster pot weavers, local bonnet milliners and guernsey knitters showcasing their work. There was also the parade ring where perfectly groomed Guernsey goats, cows and bullocks would walk, heads held high and shoulders back proud in the knowledge that already they were the best of the best. And then at the North Show we’d have the parade of floral floats in all shapes and sizes of grandeur, the Guernsey Battle of Flowers – such a highlight in the holiday calendar.

Edward Le Page, decades ago a St Peter’s neighbour, seemed a regular winner of the Prix d’Honneur – or is that my young mind playing tricks? Each year his magnificent floats would grow bigger and grander. Were they always a homage to the latest Disney release or favourite family film? For weeks before, the trailer would be worked on, fashioning a framework out of timber and chicken wire then wait naked for its floral embellishment to be painstakingly placed, flower by flower. The days of painting with glue, asters and other flowers would go on late into the night before the parade, with any mechanical moving parts being checked, re-checked, and then re-checked again. My last job, waving our majestic float off on its way down Rue du Lorier and on to Saumarez Park. Happy days indeed.

With the heat waves we’ve had, and the lack of much-needed rain that seems to make all growing things flourish, I don’t think we’ll be winning any prizes at our local show this year. Our beans will be over within weeks, much, much earlier than any previous year. A fruit is forming well on our squash, though with die-back in the leaves I doubt it will be the size of a house – maybe a football, if we’re lucky. Our beetroot, well they’re doing OK, though the only plates they’ll likely enhance are the ones we eat our supper off.

Though I do have still some hope for our tomatoes. We haven’t picked any yet, which in itself is a record. In a usual year we’re picking big outdoor tomatoes by the end of July, cherry tomatoes even earlier. However, our Black Krim, which I mentioned last month, are looking grand – they’re just beginning to ripen and taking on a fabulous shape. In a few weeks’ time they’ll have taken on their shiny, cracked, reddy-black lustre. They really are a class of their own – and if they had a class of their own in our local show, we would win – though the real winning is in the eating, and we’ll certainly be doing much of that with them over the coming month.

As I turn to the window, I notice the sky has darkened, then a flash of lightning, a rip-rolling crash of thunder, and now the clouds are giving up their tumults, and torrential rain has come.

Looking out from my office at the top of the house I see over the next few minutes that the cloudburst has passed and we have constant good rain now, the right kind of rain. The weather has truly broken, and I for one am glad, as will be so many allotmenteers, growers, gardeners, and farmers. I’ll also be glad of fewer trips to the allotment tap.

  • Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot.