creating the perfect veg patch
Trust me: creating a vegetable patch will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Everyone seems to be at it. I’ve just returned from friends who have transformed their north London garden. Around the outer walls are metre-wide beds contained by new oak sleepers. Inside these, occupying what was once a lawn, are narrow paths and three large growing squares. There’s not a plant in sight yet, but the place is full of the life-enhancing promise of abundance.
Anybody with one or two spare hours a week can do it. In the middle of April it is the time to pick up the spade so that summer and autumn will be spent bringing in basket after basket of the most delicious fresh vegetables, fruit, salads and herbs. Even the temptations of the best-stocked farmers’ market will waft over your head and food miles will become irrelevant – life will be focused on food metres. Just follow this step-by-step guide.
improve the soil
Tempting though it is, don’t just plant the seeds any old how. The soil will probably need improving if you haven’t cultivated your plot before. Veg likes a loving environment – light, airy and full of goodness. A small soil lump size is crucial.
There is some starch stored in the seed but it’s not much to keep it going until the shoot reaches the light, unravels its seed leaves and starts photo-synthesising. Sown in heavy, sticky soil with clods the size of grapefruit, the journey is going to be a hard one.
You’ll know if your soil is heavy clay because it feels slimy and you can squeeze it into a ball without it collapsing. To make it friendlier, add huge quantities – tons, rather than one or two bags – of grit and compost or manure. The whole surface should be 6cm (about 2in) deep in grit, with another 6cm (2in) of organic matter on top, before you dig or rotavate it in. This will instantly convert ropy top soil into something good.
On very thin top soil over chalk or sand, make raised beds using railway sleepers or treated timber boards or hazel border edging to create a horizontal frame. Then you will need to import some top soil. Raised beds can also be the easiest technique when growing on seriously vile clay.
choose the veg
If life is busy and space scarce, the veg to grow are those that crop for months at a stretch from one sowing, giving abundantly with minimal TLC. Many of these are cut-and-come-again, so you can begin picking at one end of a line and by the time you get to the other, the roots at the start have grown new leaves. The right plants produce a seamless supply.
- Cut-and-come-again salad leaves such as mizuna, mustard 'Red Giant’, 'Green Salad Bowl’ and 'Cocarde’ lettuce all have excellent flavour. Sown now, they will produce for two to three months if picked regularly.
- Cut-and-come-again herbs, such as the hardy Italian flat-leaved parsley, chervil and dill, can be sown now, followed by the more tender, sweet basil, lemongrass and oregano in a month’s time. These also take hard harvesting.
- Courgettes are well worth growing. Select healthy and heavy-cropping varieties such as 'Defender’ and the yellow 'Soleil’ – both good for their flowers as well as fruit – and the climbing 'Tromboncino’, which will clamber over a fence or frame, so is ideal in a small urban garden.
- If you have a sunny, sheltered spot, go for the very sweet, yellow-orange-skinned cherry tomato 'Sungold’ and a cucumber such as the crunchy 'La Diva’.
- Plant a long, steady-cropping, climbing French bean such as 'Blue Lake’, and the runner bean 'Painted Lady’. All runners are prolific and it can be hard to keep up with the produce. The flowers have a very beany flavour and are ideal for scattering over salad or providing substance to a tabbouleh.
- The final must-have in this category is Swiss Chard 'White Silver’. Sow half a packet now to crop into the autumn and the other half in August for picking until the spring. Treat chard leaves as two separate vegetables; the white stems are ideal for gratins and eating warm in a mustardy dressing. Use the green as you would spinach, cooked and dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, or served in a béchamel.
fresh is best
Select veg whose taste and texture are best when super fresh. The common characteristic is a high sugar content, which rapidly turns into starch after picking. Cook and eat them as quickly as you can.
- Plant tubers of waxy new potatoes such as 'International Kidney’ (the Jersey Royal) and 'Charlotte’, which offer flavour and disease resistance.
- Put in lots of carrots that have carrot-fly resistance and a lovely sweet taste. Try the most resistant 'Flyaway’.
- To give some all-important height, as well as very sweet and succulent peas, go for the tall, long-cropping 'Hurst Green Shaft’. Nip out some of the side shoots to toss into a salad or wilt over risotto.
- Corn takes up quite a bit of space and needs to be planted in a block, not a line, but if you have room, sow the variety 'Sweet Nugget’, which has extra-sweet kernels.
how to sow
Plant a few seeds of some of these productive plants every few weeks and you’ll have a good variety of veg flowing into the kitchen, rather than a daunting glut of one that will soon bore you, and your taste buds to tears!
There are two ways of doing it; either sow straight into the vegetable patch, or raise seedlings under cover in a greenhouse or cold frame, then plant them out. As a general rule, hardy annuals (see the backs of their packets) can be safely sown outside once the soil is warm, whereas half-hardies are best on a window ledge until the frosts are over.
Late spring is the perfect time to start sowing direct into the garden. In most areas, the soil is warm enough and not dripping wet or too dry.
- Sow seed as thinly as you can. Don’t pour straight from the packet or the crease in the palm of your hand, because you’ll get clumps of seed and then a bald patch when too many tiny plants compete for light, food and water. The ideal spacing is often about 5cm (2in) apart, but check the instructions. This is impossible with tiny seeds. Sow these quickly, as that will give you a thinner distribution than if you are meticulous and slow. I make a line with my finger across the drill so as not to miss a bit or go back over the same ground again.
- Most seeds germinate outside after a couple of weeks. When the seedlings are 2.5cm (1in) tall, get brutal. Thin them out to the spacing suggested on the back of the packet.
- Some varieties of hardy-annual veg benefit from watering as they come into flower, with a good flood rather than a sprinkle; broad beans, peas and potatoes get particularly thirsty. Salad leaves, lettuce and leafy greens such as spinach also bolt quickly when it’s hot and dry, so water them well first thing in the morning. Watering at night encourages slugs and snails.
- Guttering from the local builder’s yard is ideal for sowing inside and when space is short. Cut it to fit your beds exactly. Don’t bother to block the ends up or drill holes in the bottom – the water will drain away.
- Fill the pipe with non-peat-based potting compost and sow two seeds to every planting station (look at the final planting distance on the back of the packet). If both germinate, take out one before transplanting.
- Planting out needs two people, one at either end of the guttering. Make a trench to mirror the depth and length of the pipe. Water the compost to bind it before sliding the seedlings from the guttering into the U-trench, pushing lengths of 45cm (about 18in) at a time. Slide one section in, push the next forward to the mouth, then slide that in and so on.
There are plenty of plants that thrive growing in a pot and will supply you with delicious food.
Use large containers with a drainage layer of crocks or stones in the bottom, and at least a foot of a rich and water-retaining, loam-based compost below the roots.
Use liquid manure or seaweed to maintain fertility. Choose:
- Productive varieties that grow vertically and take up little space: all you need is three cucumber plants, each on a bamboo cane, sitting in a sunny corner , and you’ll be picking them for three or four months. Climbing French, borlotti or runner beans are also ideal. Provide support as they grow, so they don’t blow over.
- Plants that look good for a long season: 'Tumbling Tom’ cherry tomatoes; strawberries such as 'Mara des Bois’; 'White Silver’ Swiss chard.
- Dwarf forms, such as 'Masterpiece’ French bean, 'Little Marvel’ and 'Lincoln’ peas, the yellow French bean 'Rocquencourt’ and the dramatic 'Purple Teepee’, all of which look great with their pods hanging from a pot.
- New potatoes: if you plant two seed potatoes into a large five-litre pot, you can keep yourself in spuds from May to September. Harvest them when the plants have begun to die back. 'International Kidney’ (Jersey Royals) and the waxy 'Belle de Fontenay’ do well in containers.