Rhapsody in Green: A Novelist in the Garden is Charlotte's first, and probably last, non-fiction book. It's a portrait of tragic obsession: how a woman with a laughably tiny garden, no knowledge and absurdly high hopes became slave to an urban jungle, where she grows over 100 things to eat. It's my garden: come in. Try not to laugh.
It is published now by Kyle Books; for more information see the link below, and look for it in your local independent bookshop...
Guardian, 17 September 2016
Salad days: how author Charlotte Mendelson transformed her patio into a garden larder
If you are a frustrated enthusiast-in-waiting, with only a tiny growing space, or nothing at all; if other people’s gardens, let alone gardening books, intimidate you; or if your only interest in plants is in eating them, you are not alone. This is my confession: my comically small town garden, a mere six square metres of urban soil and a few pots, is not a scented idyll of rambling roses, or an elegant, if overstyled, space in which to drink prosecco. It is a larder in which I grow more than 100 things to eat, including, in an ordinary year, eight or nine types of tomato; five varieties of kale; three kinds of raspberry, red and gold; various sorrels; globe, Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes; 10 kinds of lettuce and chicory, and another 10 of Asian greens; seven or eight types of climbing bean, mostly Italian; about 50 herbs and a few flowers, all edible. I make salads with 20 or 30 different leaves; and I harvest, sometimes by the teaspoonful, juneberries, wild strawberries, tame strawberries, blackberries, wineberries, blueberries, loganberries, gooseberries, cherries, grapes, rhubarb, apples, figs, quinces and every conceivable currant.
With variable success, and modest yields, this minute area is a wildly uneconomical experiment in extreme allotmenteering – a city jungle, green and bountiful, combining edible cultivation with natural beauty but, sadly, little room to sit. Yes, I do mind that there is no space for a nut tree, or just a couple of small sheep, but, despite this, it is a source of infinite happiness and deep peace. How could it not be? Try this whitecurrant. Look at the way the evening sunlight dapples the bean leaves. Listen to the hum of all those bees. Visitors tend to laugh. It looks completely bonkers, yet I am in love with it.
I didn’t mean to become an edible gardener. One minute, I had acquired a garden full of happy shrubbery and ardent ground cover, easy to tend, a pleasure to look upon; a few months later, I was tearing most of it out and, despite total ignorance, laboriously raising from seed dozens of things I wanted to eat.
Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
The perils of containers
Around this time of year, what container-grower is not moved almost to tears by her folly? I have more than 70 pots, excluding all the temporary seedling homes, the 10 succulents and house plants holidaying outside, and the 20 containers at the front.
Watering is a delicate process, which non-gardeners fail to understand. “Why,” ask the unwary, “not save yourself some time? Give them a going-over with the hosepipe and let them get on with it? Treat them mean!”
Containers dry out so quickly. Only with a watering can one ensure that the water truly reaches the roots, instead of pooling like quicksilver on the dusty soil surface before trickling over the lip of the container and filling the saucer, convincing the careless locum gardener that the plant has drunk its fill.
Proper, individual watering is like a home visit by a kindly family doctor: is all well? Are there interesting sicknesses: magnesium issues? A problem with boron? How are they in themselves? And so watering even my laughably tiny garden is a slow, but delicious-smelling, process. When I can no longer lug a watering can, I will totter outside with a milk bottle, a mug, a thimble-full. It is a chore, but I could not live without those whiffs of cool mint and spicy tomato leaves. The garden and I are keeping each other alive.
The joy of tomatoes
I love my tomato plants, a little too much. In the infinitely seductive world of vegetables, they have rare power. Merely their names are enough to quicken the pulse: ‘Merveilles des Marchés’, ‘Black Opal’, ‘Harbinger’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Indigo Beauty’, ‘Moonglow’, ‘Bloody Butcher’. Those of us who are vulnerable to a really good name can be manipulated mercilessly; we’d buy ping-pong balls if the right noun and colour were combined.
Part of the joy of tomato-growing is that one’s work is never done. This is why I prefer the varieties that grow as vines or cordons, not bush tomatoes, the drearily named determinates, which quickly become a thicket of criss-crossing stems. A cordon requires effort, and plenty of it: planting the seedling deeply in its pot to encourage opportunistic roots; staking it gently; hand-pollinating every last flower; pinching out the side shoots. The smell is glorious; the prospect of warm, home-grown fruit, fragrant and magnificently showy-offy, is irresistible.
What to grow when you can’t grow lemons
Lemon balm is almost the perfect plant: fragrant, edible, adaptable, easy to grow. Unfortunately, it is also revolting. Why does no one admit this? There is something unspeakable in its scent: a syrupy sweetness beside the tang, artificial as furniture polish or car sweets. Its taste is worse: like a squirt of bathroom-freshener. It is vile. Treat it as a weed and rip it out.
Lemon thyme: every year you disappoint me. Why do we keep pretending you’ll stick around? You make these promises and I keep trying to please you: more grit, less water, less fuss. It isn’t fuss; it’s love. But, every winter, you leave me. When will I learn?
Lemongrass is easy; you simply shove two unpromising supermarket stalks into a jar of water and wait for roots. It’s magical: the 21st-century sophisticate’s equivalent of cress on kitchen towel. However, all that you produce is a couple of leafy stems that, once you have planted them out, will be less useful than the original stalk; and, much more worrying, they won’t survive the winter. Don’t even try.
Which leaves us with lemon verbena, a reputedly tricky plant. I have been lucky with mine, perhaps because I fleece it thoroughly in winter and for the rest of the year treat it meanly, never transplanting it to a larger pot. The scent is fabulous: a resinous sherbety zest, exactly as one might hope a lemon tree’s bark might taste. Its most obvious glory is as tea. Culinarily, try it whenever you might include lemon zest or thyme..