The kitchen worktop is covered in carefully arranged seed packets as I plot out what to grow and where to grow it. As I look out at the garden I have decided that the patio will be the place where I will be growing most of my seasonings. A sun-baked strip at the back of the garden will be for the sun-loving veg to do their thing. My aim this year is to grow more of the Caribbean vegetables and seasonings I love. The orders are placed with the organic seeds providers and I’ll be making a trip down to my favourite local nursery where the amazing owner loves to experiment with new things and some Caribbean treasures amongst them, so I’ll be down there in a few months to get some seedlings.
Whilst we may not have a tropical climate and greyer skies it is entirely possible to grow a great range of seasonings and veg which form the backbone of Caribbean style cooking. My Caribbean kitchen garden has a distinctly Jamaican flavour based on my own cultural heritage. Thyme, garlic, scallion and Scotch Bonnet pepper are the bedrock of Jamaican savoury cooking and vegetables like Callaloo (leaf Amaranth), pumpkin and tomatoes make for key ingredients. With good soil and a little patience these are easy to grow. So, the seeds are on order, the terracotta pots arranged, the beds ear-marked. I’m looking forward to the growing!
Plectranthus amboinicus is a type of thyme known as Jamaican Broadleaf thyme, Cuban Oregano, Indian Borage, Spanish thyme, Mexican thyme and Hung chanh in Vietnam. It’s a very pungent variety (far more than common thyme). It’s used a lot in Caribbean and South American cooking. It is a succulent and tender so it best in a pot and needs to be cut back and brought indoors once the weather turns cold. It is easy to grow from stem-cuttings. Unlike more common Mediterranean herbs it requires a rich soil to help hold moisture and shouldn’t be allowed to dry out completely. I will be buying this as a small plant rather than starting from seed as it can take a little while for it to grow. If you’re in the UK try the wonderful Jekka’s Herb Farm in Bristol who grow this variety and which you can buy.
Escallions (Scallions) are another essential plant in Jamaican cuisine giving it a distinctive flavour. The Caribbean scallions are slightly stronger than the more familiar Spring Onions. I grow both as I love spring onions in salads and other in other dishes, however, I will be looking forward to this crop of the Jamaican variety. They grow just like all other spring onions and can be sown from seed from Spring to late Summer. You can try Japanese bunching onions or Welsh Onion also which are perhaps closest in flavour to the Caribbean escallion. All are good to grow in pots or planters. If you’re interested in trying a true Jamaican variety try ordering seeds from Caribbean Garden on Etsy. Their seeds are organic.
Garlic. “Plenty plenty garlic” is what my mum would tell me when making curry. Garlic is a key seasoning ingredient which no savoury dish is complete without. Best planted in November they should be planted by the end of February at the latest. I was late to planting this year so I will visiting the local nursery to buy them as small plants in a month or so.
Pepper, pepper. It’s all about pepper in a Jamaican dish. The most important of which is Scotch Bonnet and Bird Peppers. The purpose of pepper is not just about heat. Scotch Bonnet in particular has a fruitiness to it which slightly sweetens the dish even when just a little is used. I have grown these peppers before but this year I will also be trying the chocolate Scotch Bonnet, the secret flavour to the famous Jamaican Jerk Sauce! It is a very hot pepper and a little will go a long way! As with all chilis they need to be germinated in warm conditions. I will be growing mine in a container and keeping it in full sun on the patio where it will make for great pickings. Caribbean Garden sell seeds which are a guaranteed Scotch Bonnet strain of the chocolate variety which are organic originally from the owners garden. You can also try Nicky’s Nursery who also sell seeds for both the traditional red and chocolate variety as well as bird pepper.
Amaranth cruentus is the leaf amaranth known as Callaloo in the Caribbean. It is the critical vegetable for Jamaican cooking and is grown extensively by people living in the Caribbean. It is popular right across the West Indies in Trinidad-Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana, Asia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, West Indies, Barbados and the Bahamas! It comes in a red-veined strain or pure green. I have grown both in the past but this year I will be growing Mrs McGhie from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library for whom I am a Seed Guardian this year (yeah!). I’m really looking forward to growing this one which is now a heritage seed in the UK and has been developed through the growing efforts of the older generation of Jamaican gardeners here. I love love callaloo and is it fabulous which fish dishes or with coconut milk for a stew called run-down. Perfect for container planting the seeds need warm soil to germinate so best sown in a propagator in May or directly from June onwards. They take around 10 weeks to become full big plants which can then be harvested whole where the flavour is much more intense. However, you can keep picking the leaves whilst growing like spinach. If growing in open ground be mindful that if you let the plant run to seed it can get huge though that may not be such a bad thing as the plumes are so very pretty!
Phaseolus vulgaris known to many of us as Red Kidney Beans or chili beans is a new venture for me this year. These are the red peas in the famous Jamaican Rice and Peas dish. I’m really looking forward to growing this as I didn’t know they could be grown here. This is another plant from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library the variety is called Starley Red Peas. It’s a dwarf French Bean but the seeds came originally from Jamaica. It has beautiful creamy flowers followed by terracotta flowerpot coloured beans. It needs to be sown as per French beans so I will be sowing undercover in April to transplant into large pots in late May/June.
Pumpkin. Finally, if I have space I shall try and grow the Jamaican variety of pumpkin Calabaza. This is a large plant which requires a lot of watering (maybe this is one to train up the garden shed ). Calabaza is a firm fleshed variety full of flavour and is this is THE pumpkin for Jamaican soups. It is similar in firmness to the blue-skinned varieties of pumpkins. Seeds need warm temperatures to germinate at least 20 degrees so best sown in May undercover. The key with pumpkins in not only a good summer but also frequent and deep watering. I have seed saved from relatives but you can try Caribbean Gardens for buying.
Abelmoschus esculentus Okra. If you’re interested in trying out other good Caribbean/Jamaican vegetables that can be grown, you could try Okra. It is also known as Ladies’ Fingers bhindi, bamia, ochro or gumbo and grown across the Caribbean, southern India, South America and southern US and popular in the dishes found in these regions. Okra is fantastic for grilling or adding to curries. It has the most beautiful flower resembling Hibiscus’ which is not surprising as it is a member of the Malvacae family. I would grow this but it really needs to be grown under glass to flower and fruit well. Though, a great summer may mean you could have success outdoors as indeed The Big Allotment Challenge’s Sandra Bright proved!
Why not try growing some traditional Caribbean seasonings and veg this year? For inspiration on seasonal dishes take a look at the Leek, Sweet Potato and Ginger Soup, Saturday Soup or Wonderful Jamaican Vegan Fritters. If you’re planning to grow Caribbean vegetables or have an amazing Caribbean kitchen garden already why not share your wonderful pictures on Instagram? #LorraineGardens.
Enjoy the growing season!