Swedish food for an English garden

Plants for Swedish food lovers


You don't need green fingers or a big garden to grow some plants that will enhance your Swedish dishes. Of course, the list of things that you could grow is endless so I have picked out some plants that I think are particularly worth growing. They are all difficult to buy in most supermarkets and they are particularly popular ingredients in Swedish food.

Dill

Dill flower heads

Many supermarkets are now beginning to stock dill fronds but I have never seen dill crowns (flowers) in a UK supermarket, so this is my top recommendation. Dill is a hardy annual that can be grown from seed. In fact that is the best way of growing dill, as it hates disturbance. Dill likes:

• sun or semi-shade,
• well drained soil,
• moist soil whilst getting established,
• somewhat fertile soil, but for the best flavour don't add fertiliser or manure.

It can be grown in a small bed, in a pot or against a wall. It will normally grow to a height of about 70 cm (just over 2 feet). If space permits, sow the seeds once a month from mid March until mid May. Thin the seedlings to 20 cm (8") apart.

Smultron (Alpine or woodland strawberries)

Wild or alphine strawberries

Smultron (alpine or woodland strawberries) are far more popular in Sweden than in the UK. Swedes like to gather them in the forest, but they are also grown by gardeners.

I have never seen them in a UK supermarket so I think that is a good reason for growing them! They are very aromatic and sweet, but much smaller, less juicy, a little more seedy and usually darker than their big cousins. They are particularly nice for decorating summer cakes.

I recommend a fully hardy variety called Fragaria vesca, which is available from the Royal Horticultural Society. They can be grown in pots or as attractive edging plants. They need a sunny spot for the fruit to ripen. 

Cucumber

A cucumber flower

Although cucumbers are plentiful in supermarkets, the cellophane wrapped giants lining the shelves tend to be watery and rather tasteless. They are not really suitable for pickling either, because they are too big. Freshly picked cucumbers straight from the garden are much sweeter, heavier and crisper. You can also pick them when they are the right size for your needs.

Cucumbers can be grown in large pots, growbags or directly in the ground provided they are in a warm sheltered spot and the soil is fertile.

Cucumber Zeina

Choose a ridge type, the name given to cucumbers grown outside, such as Zeina (above) or Picolino, both obtainable from Thompson & Morgan.

Sow cucumber seed on their sides at a depth of 1 cm in 7.5 cm pots of free-draining, seed sowing compost. Place the pots inside a plastic bag at a temperature of 20°C until they germinate. This usually only takes 7-10 days.

Once they have germinated you can move them to a bright windowsill. Try to maintain a minimum temperature of 15°C and keep the compost moist but not wet. Cucumber seedlings can be prone to scorching, so take care to shade them from direct sunlight.

The plants should be gradually acclimatised to outdoor conditions over 7-10 days before transplanting into warm, well drained and rich soil. Choose a sunny position with shelter from strong winds. Water the pots well before transplanting and remove them carefully from their pots as cucumbers don't like their roots being disturbed

When the plants have developed seven leaves pinch out the growing tip. The developing sideshoots can be left to trail over the ground or trained up stout netting or bamboo canes. Pinch out the tips of flowerless sideshoots after seven leaves. Keep the soil constantly moist by watering around the plants – not over them as it can cause mildew.

Cut the fruits when they are about 12-20 cm long using a sharp knife.

Beetroot

Beetroot growing in a garden

Beetroot is one of the least demanding crops: it grows quickly, doesn't need much space, can tolerate virtually any soil and it doesn't mind cool conditions. Beetroot plants look good wherever you put them and so can be planted in ornamental borders as well as in vegetable gardens.

Sliced beetroot chioggia

The advantage of growing your own is that you can pull the roots when they are golf-ball size, smaller than you will normally find on supermarket shelves. You can also choose different colours and patterns such as chioggia, a striking globe variety that has red and white rings on the inside. It is available from Thompson & Morgan.

Sow at monthly intervals from mid April until mid June to enjoy a regular supply of tender roots. Although they are easy to grow, they don't like dry conditions, so if it doesn't rain, water moderately at fortnightly intervals. Sow two seeds at 10 cm intervals and thin out to leave a single plant at each station. Expect the roots to be ready for picking after 10-12 weeks.

Horseradish

A horseradish root partially peeled

Fresh horseradish is widely used in Swedish food but it is hard to buy in the UK. Although some supermarkets are beginning to stock it, you may find none near you and even those that do stock it don't seem to do so consistently. If you do see some it is worth buying, because it keeps very well provided it is wrapped in clingfilm (food-wrap) and stored in a cool dark place.

If you can't find it in the shops near you, it is worth considering growing your own. It is famed for its hot flavour but it also has a high vitamin content. Perhaps even more important is the fact that it is a very potent anti-inflammatory, which is why it is often included in pickles as it kills germs in the pickles whilst adding pungency and flavour.

It is easy to grow provided it gets at least 4 hours sunshine per day, more if possible, and is watered in dry conditions. The problem with growing horseradish is that it can spread and become invasive so you need to grow it on waste ground or in a very large pot. The taproots are up to 60 cm long so the pot needs to be as big as possible.

The roots are normally dug up in the autumn. Extracting the roots without breaking them is not easy. If possible bury the pot in the ground so that you can get more leverage to dig the roots out. If you are growing them in open ground follow the practise of commercial growers and insert the plants in loose soil at an angle of about 45°.

Chervil

Chervil growing in a garden

My bonus choice would be körvel (chervil). It is hard to buy in most countries, including Sweden, but it has been used in Swedish food for hundreds of years. It is a hardy annual herb. It looks a bit like parsley, but it has a more delicate flavour with hints of aniseed. It goes well with aspragus, eggs, fish and salads.

Don't bother with...

Although it is possible to buy lingonberry bushes I have not had any success with them, so unless you can plant them somewhere cold and damp I wouldn't bother with them.

Similarly it is possible to buy cloudberry and bilberry plants but both need cold and damp conditions with acidic soil, so I wouldn't bother with either. 

John Duxbury

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