Becoming expert growers with Incredible Vegetables

Featured image: Perennial 9 Star Broccoli

Recently,  we caught up with Mandy Barber from Incredible Vegetables to find out all about how she started growing, how she has become one of the main growers of Ulluco in the UK, and some beginners tips to help us all become expert vegetable growers. Take a look at our interview below.

Our interview with Incredible Vegetables

1. You and your partner set up Incredible Vegetables as an experimental vegetable growing project and now sell perennial vegetable plants and seeds in your online shop. When you started your growing project did you ever expect to be selling as well?

It all started back in 2010 when we were lucky enough to buy a share in a piece of land which gave us a lot of space – not just to grow our own food and be self-sufficient in vegetables, but space to research, experiment and grow unusual and perennial vegetables as well. For many years we have grown all the staples you might find in any vegetable garden but wanted to explore all the other amazing array of edible plants out there and to grow plants from around the world and see how they would fare in the South West of England.

After practising no-dig annual vegetable cultivation for some time, we decided to introduce more perennial vegetables into our plot and move towards polyculture where all kinds of edible and beneficial plants nestle side by side. It just made sense. Food for years from the same plants, less work, not having to sow and plant each year (for at least part of what we grow) and caring for the soil by leaving it undisturbed and not open to the elements. The other brilliant thing about perennial vegetables is having a harvest during the hungry gap as a lot of perennial vegetables come into their own in winter and early spring giving you a larder of food when you most need it. We were in awe of plants such as Perennial 9 Star broccoli for example that produce delicious white (cauliflower-like) florets for five years each spring. Why sow cauliflowers each year when you have a plant that can give you multiple mini ‘cauliflowers’ year after year?

It wasn’t our intention when we started out to make a small business from perennial vegetables and I’m not quite sure exactly how the business started! I think it developed partly from sharing what we doing on social media and being inundated with requests from people. We also found that when searching for rare edibles and perennial vegetable plants and seeds that they were pretty hard to come by and thought why don’t we try and supply some of these things for all those out there who want to move into perennial vegetable growing? In 2014 Incredible Vegetables was launched.

2. You are now also the main growers of Ulluco in the UK, how did you start growing it? Do you have any tips for anyone who wants to try growing Ulluco at home?

Ulluco are Andean root tuber crop producing brightly coloured small edible tubers that are grown and eaten in a similar way to potatoes. They have been cultivated on the higher elevations of the Andes for thousands of years and are still a common part of the Andean diet. We started off with a handful of tiny Ulluco tubers five years ago. Mesmerised by their exquisite beauty we had never seen anything like them before and were hooked. We read a lot about them and our research showed that they were quite difficult to grow outside of the Andean region where they originate because they require quite specific conditions in order to thrive. This was a challenge we couldn’t resist and we wanted to see what results we would have with them.

Ten varieties of Ulluco tubers grown by Incredible Vegetables on Dartmoor, Devon

We are lucky here in Devon that we have a very mild climate and frosts don’t usually appear until late November. This is great for Ulluco as they need a 6-7 month growing season to produce a decent yield. The tubers don’t start forming until after the autumn equinox, triggered by the shortening days so you only have a short window between tuber formation and first frosts. We found that Ulluco actually quite like our South West climate and seem to enjoy growing on Dartmoor! After several years of selecting our best tubers and growing them on and sourcing new varieties, we have managed to grow full-size Ulluco with success. We are pretty much obsessed with them. There are some plants that you have an affinity with and Ulluco are one of those plants.

They are very much an experimental crop outside of South America and yields can vary wildly depending on your location, soil and weather. Our top tips would be to start them off as early as possible under cover in March/April by planting the tubers in pots or trays in a polytunnel or greenhouse. This way you can extend their growing season and plant them out in May with a few inches of growth so they will establish quickly. At the end of the growing season cover with horticultural fleece so you can squeeze an extra couple of weeks of them plumping up in the ground as this makes all the difference.

3. Is there an “easy” vegetable to grow for beginners who want to try and get into the perennial vegetable growing world?

We grow a lot of perennial kales, Taunton Deane, Daubenton’s and a beautiful variegated Daubenton’s too. Basically step 1: Plant. Step 2: Watch it grow. Step 3: Eat your own body weight in kale. These are one of the easiest perennial vegetables to grow and look after. They don’t need much other than the odd mulch and liquid feed. They have such resistance too. Even though they get nibbled by cabbage whites they seem to shrug it off and re-grow at a rapid rate. Some of our Taunton Deane plants are 2m tall and approaching 1.5 wide. The other brilliant thing is that they are great companions for your other ‘regular’ brassicas taking the all the heat in terms of pests and leaving the others to grow without much damage. We have been growing naked Cavolo Nero for the last few years since we introduced perennial kales ( the Cavolo Nero is naked and un-netted not us!) The perennial kales seem to play the role of wise elders showing the others how it is done. Perennial kales are the closest relatives of the original wild cabbages and this shows in their resilience.

Yacon is also another really easy perennial to grow and such an attractive and abundant plant that produces a winter crop of large tubers with a delicious crisp texture and a refreshing taste of melon/pear. Related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes they are grown from sections of rhizome that can be potted up and planted out in May. Over the summer the plants grow beautiful large slightly fuzzy leaves doing most of their growing during the last part of summer. Once the tops hit by frost they can be lifted and the large storage tubers harvested for eating and the crown of rhizomes stored and saved for dividing up to make plants for the following year. A salad of Yacon, blue cheese, walnuts & winter leaves is one of the most delicious things you can eat and the Yacon provide a most welcome winter ingredient. They sweeten over time if left in a fruit bowl or brown paper bag. One Yacon plant is all you need to grow Yacon in subsequent years.

Yacon growing in the Incredible Vegetable's field

4. Do you have any favourite recipes to make using the produce you grow?

One of our favourite recipes is for ‘Habfritzias’. These are chickpea fritters with Hablitzia Tamnoides leaves and spices cooked in a shallow pan. Hablitzia is another amazing low maintenance perennial vegetable that is easy to grow and will give you spinach type leaves for the rest of your life. It is a semi-shade loving climber that will grow in parts of your garden that might not be suitable for annual cultivation. Once established the plants can grow 3m tall providing an abundance of mild edible green leaves through spring and summer. The first emerging spring shoots are tasty too. To make Habfritzias mix 8 oz of chickpea flour with water into a smooth batter, half a tsp of baking powder, spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper, chilli to taste) and a large handful of freshly chopped Hablitzia leaves. Mix and then dollop spoonfuls into a shallow pan with hot vegetable oil and brown on both sides until cooked through. Delicious!

5. Do you grow your produce all year round with polytunnels and greenhouses, or do you prefer the seasonal gardening method to give some variety?

We do grow produce all year round with annual and perennial vegetables grown outside giving pretty much a continual harvest. The perennials kick in when the annuals have finished for the year. For example over the winter months we eat cardoons, yacon, oca, Chinese artichokes, skirret roots, stored potato onions, perennial kales and into spring hablitzia leaves and shoots, Babington’s leeks (perennial) sea kale blanched shoots, asparagus, Perennial 9 Star Broccoli, lovage shoots, elephant garlic and other alliums. These are eaten alongside our stored crops of squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Our polytunnel is used for raising plants but is crammed full during summer with Padron peppers, tomatillos, unusual cucumbers, cucamelons, achocha and heritage tomatoes. In the tunnel in winter we grow salads, spinach, coriander and squeeze in a few early sowings of carrots, we use every last inch of space basically.

6. One of your aims is to provide difficult to source perennial vegetable plants, seeds and tubers to gardeners. Do you sell to individuals as well as larger organisations and projects?

Yes, we do sell to individuals as well as agroforestry and permaculture projects all over the UK and Europe. We have also sold to quite a few chefs who have kitchen gardens who are interested in moving towards perennial vegetables and those seeking out new and interesting plants to try out in the kitchen.

Many national trust houses with walled gardens have been buying from us too, keen to grow things like Skirrets (a perennial root vegetable with sweet skinny parsnip type roots) which were once part of the kitchen garden in Tudor and Stuart periods. Our skirrets appeared on Gardeners World in 2016 with Monty Don planting out some of our Skirret crowns in his Tudor vegetable garden as part of a special episode on Shakespeare.

We think people love what we are trying to do with our business – re-populate the world with perennial vegetables! They also love that we are dedicated growers who are passionate about plants and nurture every last seedling by hand. Being small scale, we tend to everything ourselves and the care and attention shows in the plants and seeds that we send out. We have had such amazing feedback from customers and this spurs us on to grow and research new edible perennials to add to our collection. We have even started receiving gifts of rare plants from individuals who want us to grow and share them.

7. You’ve hosted lectures and talks at events before, do you have any more coming up in 2017?

We have a few talks lined up at local gardening groups in the South West and have been invited to do an unusual vegetable cookery demonstration at Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival at the end of April 2017.

Mandy Barber Incredible Vegetables 9 January 2017

Check out more great interviews