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Get growing for The Great British Bake Off

by Emma Cooper

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@ iStockphoto / Salima Senyavskaya

Forget ceviche and sous-vide, it’s all about the buns now The Great British Bake Off is back on the telly. Cake making might not be (quite) so cutthroat in your own kitchen, but sprinkling in a few homegrown ingredients is still a great way to give your creations that extra-special something. Emma Cooper takes a look at a baker’s dozen to grow in urban gardens.

Golden grain

Wheat is tricky to grow on a small scale so if you fancy harvesting your own grain, try buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) instead. It’s easy to cultivate, even on poor soil and seeds are widely available as buckwheat is commonly used as a green manure. Plants mature quickly, so you don’t need to sow too early in the season – June is fine.

Cut stalks before the first frosts are due, spread them out on a sheet and thresh them – ripe, dark brown seeds will fall out for collection. To grind seeds into flour you can use a blender for small quantities (or for dedicated growers, small mills are available). The hulls fall off and are sieved out of the finished flour. Whilst buckwheat flour isn’t a substitute for wheat, you can use it to replace about one fifth of the wheat flour in bread recipes, or use it for buckwheat pancakes.

Top seeds

The nice thing about growing seeds is that the plants look lovely all summer before producing a crop that’s handy for all sorts of breads, cakes and bakes.

Breadseed poppies (opium poppies, Papaver somniferum) are a great example – many people grow them purely for their flowers but collect the seed heads as they dry and you can empty out the seeds and use them for baking. Sow seeds in spring or late summer and early autumn – there are one or two specific breadseed poppy varieties you can choose – The Real Seed Catalogue offers the white-seeded ‘Sokol’ and Chiltern Seeds have ‘Hungarian Blue’. The classic use for them is as a topping for freshly-baked bread, but for something a little different try adding a spoonful or two to the mix when you’re making lemon drizzle cake.

Sokol poppies credit: The Real Seed Catalogue

Caraway seeds are a traditional addition to rye breads, but they’re also an essential ingredient in many old English favourites such as seed cake and the entertainingly-named Hawkshead Wig buns. Caraway doesn’t like being transplanted and so is best sown where you want it to grow, either in April or autumn. Delicate white flowers will be followed by seeds in the plants’ second season (caraway is a biennial).

Dill is a popular and attractive herb, and its delicate leaves add a lovely flavour to fish dishes in particular. It’s the plant’s second harvest that’s great for bakers though – try adding dill seeds into the mix next time you make seedy bread. Dill can be sown indoors in February and March, or outside in May. The seeds mature all at once, and need to be properly dried before they can be saved for baking.

Fruitful fillings

Some fruits are at their very best when they’re baked and this bunch are perfect for small gardens.

Cooking apples are pretty much an essential so it’s lucky there are plenty of types to fit a small space. Although the classic Bramley is best grown as a large tree, there are many other varieties, including dual-purpose options such as ‘Bardsey’ and ‘Charles Ross’, which can be kept to a small size. Minarette trees, which are trained into a columnar shape, can be grown in a pot and there are all sorts of other space-saving possibilities for small gardens – see Growing fruit in small spaces for more information. Just bear in mind that most apples need a pollination partner.

Lemon tree credit: ell brown

Patio and windowsill gardeners should consider a lemon. If you can give it some winter protection from frost, a tree will provide you with all those squeezes and spoonfuls of juice that are so essential to tasty cakes. Citrus plants in pots need a careful fertilising regime; remember to stock up on citrus feed when you order your tree.

If you have acidic soil, or room for a largish pot, then you can add some magic to your muffins with homegrown blueberries. Just remember to protect the plants from birds, who love the fruit just as much as we do. Blueberries are usually sold as young, pot-grown plants, for planting out in spring or autumn.

Rhubarb is an easy crop to grow if you have space for a plant – it needs about a square metre and is difficult to grow in a container. Once it is established though, all it needs is an annual feed in spring to give you bountiful harvests for crumbles, tarts and compotes for years to come. Rhubarb can be grown from seed but it’s quicker to buy crowns and plant them out in late March and early April.

Sugar and spice

If you really want to pep up your pastries, try these flavourful but easy-to-grow goodies.

Now is the time to think about saffron buns, a traditional Cornish tea time treat. Saffron (Crocus sativus) bulbs are planted in late summer and early autumn and are autumn-flowering. Although the harvest is small – three strands from each flower – a small patch of bulbs is enough to keep you in saffron all year, at a fraction of the cost of buying it.

Purple saffron credit: Suttons Seeds

Herbs are another good choice for the small-space gardener: they make a tasty addition to breads and there are even types such as lemon verbena that lend themselves to sweeter treats. Try adding a good handful of finely chopped leaves to the oil if you’re making muffins, or mix them into the sugar for cakes.

If it’s toppings you’re looking for, angelica – the candied stems of Angelica archangelica – is a classic. The plant is usually grown as a biennial, with seeds sown in August and September.

Alternatively, plant some lavender in the spring, and you’ll be able to use its flowers to scent sugar for sprinkling over cakes – use it in moderation though as the flavour can be overpowering.

For something really spicy, ginger is an easy plant to grow indoors and can be trusted to give cakes and biscuits a kick. In spring, simply pick up a root at the supermarket and divide it into sections, each one with a growing point, to make several plants. Pot up each section, cover with a shallow layer of compost and water whenever the compost dries out. Culinary ginger is not the most attractive of plants, but once the leaves die down for the winter, you can harvest your own fresh ginger root. Dig up the entire root, and cut off a section with a growing point to replant if you want to continue growing ginger the following year.

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