starting a veg patch - what to grow
What food to grow in your veg patch? It's a hard question when you are first starting out, you can be tempted to grow all the veg you've ever seen but sticking to the top performers will reap rewards.
If I were sent to prison, but knew I could grow the veg that I and other inmates would eat – what would I grow? Especially if I had limited time? That's not a difficult question. Since starting to grow my own veg, salads and herbs, it's become clear which are the easy, generous performers and which take up too much time and space to really earn their keep.
Crops such as cabbages, maincrop potatoes and parsnips are ones to grow occasionally. They have to be in the ground for ages, and there's not much difference in taste whether bought or home-grown. Save your energy and space for quick, easy producers.
Cut-and-come-again salad leaves
The first must-haves are the cut-and-come-again salads – you harvest the leaves, leaving the roots to continue to grow. You can start picking at one end of a line and by the time you get to the other, the leaves where you started have regrown. With the right plants, you can have a seamless supply.
There's a huge range of varieties and the best way to get to know which you like is to experiment. For the next few late spring and summer months – likely to be quite hot and dry – my top five would be, Lettuce 'Salad Bowl', 'Reine de Glace' or 'Black Seeded Simpson' lettuce (neither are known to be cut-and-come-again and are usually grown for their hearts, but we find these excellent for individual crunchy leaves at Perch Hill), 'Merveille de Quatre Saisons' lettuce for a splash of red in the bowl; and two punchy, heat-tolerant, salad leaves, 'Red Frills' Mustard which tastes of new potatoes, and 'Golden Streaks' Mustard with a strong, horseradish flavour. With five plants of each, within six weeks you'll be able to pick a salad from the bed almost every day. If you harvest the outside leaves regularly and the central growth once a fortnight to prevent it running up to flower, they should go on growing and producing more leaves for about 10 weeks, some even longer. Then sow again with a slightly different range, adding in Mizuna, Buckler Leaf Sorrel and Summer Purslane to take you through to the autumn, when you'll want more cold-tolerant plants such as Salad Rocket and Mibuna.
Next would be the quick-growing herbs. Some are annual and some perennial, which need to find a permanent spot. Among the annuals, grow a flat-leaved parsley called 'Gigante di Napoli'. This has the tenderest leaves for longest, is quick to grow, but slow to bolt.
I love basil too – particularly Basil 'Sweet Genovese' – and I'd want a good patch, but this can't go out until the end of May. Having just come back from Crete where they eat lots of oregano (also called sweet marjoram), fresh and dried, I'm adding this to my list. It's easy and quick to grow and wonderful chopped into salads. They also use it for a delicious dressing with olive oil and lemon to baste meat. It has survived winter with us and I saw it covered in frost in Crete.
I'd want chives and mint too, which you can cut to the ground once a week and it quickly reshoots. The chives could edge a bed and the mint would be best stashed in a pot somewhere slightly cool and shady.
Leafy greens – kale, chard and spinach
These are a must. Spinach has the tenderest texture and so is good to eat raw, but it's also the trickiest. I grow Spinach 'Dominant', the best flavoured, but if the weather gets hot, it will need watering and a shade tunnel to stop it running up to flower. It's best sown in the early spring and autumn. Chard 'White Silver' 2 and Kale 'Red Russian' can be sown now and will produce meals for six months.
The thing with courgettes is not to grow too many and to grow not one, but several varieties. I try to grow at least one dark green 'Romanesco' (characteristic ribbed fruit which, when eaten as babies, taste reminiscent of globe artichoke hearts), a pale green 'Bianca di Trieste', which is early to crop and an excellent flower producer for stuffing as well as a yellow ('Soleil' F1), which must be eaten young as the skin toughens early.
Cherry tomatoes and a cucumber
If you have a greenhouse, or a sunny, sheltered spot against a south- or west-facing wall, add one or two or the small-fruiting tomatoes or cucumbers. These produce lots of fruit for longer than most of the larger fruiting kinds and the small fruit is easier to ripen. If I only chose one tomato it would have to be the very sweet, orange-skinned Tomato 'Sungold', and one cucumber would be 'La Diva'. They taste and perform superbly.
Climbing beans, peas and broad beans
If you still have some time and room, add some broad beans, which can be sown now and some peas and climbing French and runner beans. These three will all need climbing frames.
For broad beans, I'd sow 'Stereo'. This has been bred to not develop those tough inner bean skins, with a texture more like a pea but with a broad bean taste. It's superb.
For a shelling pea, I'd go for 'Sugar Snap'. You can eat the tips – which grow prolifically – of the pods as soon as they form and you can leave some to grow on and shell them. It's the most versatile member of the pea family. 'Blue Lake Climbing' French bean and 'Polestar' runner bean are my favourites as they are slow to get stringy and tough, easy to grow and tasty.
Roots – carrots, beetroot and potatoes
Carrots are difficult to grow well, but they are so delicious you have to try. On heavy soil in particular, carrots can be a nightmare and on our clay at Perch Hill we grow them in raised beds with tons of grit added. We grow 'Early Nantes', which is shorter and stumpier than most (and good on heavy soils), moving on to 'Flyaway' in about six weeks.
Beetroot is the quickest and easiest of all the roots and I like to grow a rainbow of colours – 'Boltardy' for purple, which is ideal for baby beetroot and for leaves, plus 'Burpees Golden' in orange and 'Candy Stripe' (syn. 'Chioggia') in pink and white.
Plant a few tubers of waxy new potatoes with good flavour and disease resistance like 'International Kidney' (the Jersey Royal potato), 'Charlotte' and 'Belle de Fontenay'. There's nothing better than a June newly dug potato, eaten within half an hour, straight from your garden.
How much of each?
How much space you devote to a crop will vary among households so you need to plan this yourself, but here are some guidelines:
Veg you buy every week and eat almost every day, 60-70 per cent.
Things you buy every week, and eat two or three times during the seven days, 30 per cent.
The things you buy every couple of weeks – keep on buying.
Limited-season veg – items that aren't around all the time, but you buy if they look tasty and fresh, or if you have something in mind, 0-10 per cent.