Gardening: Home farm

You don't need a garden the size of a field to grow your own vegetables. Tasty varieties of beans, tomatoes and Swiss chard grow perfectly well in containers, says Sarah Raven
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The Independent Culture
GROWING flowers from seed is one thing, but vegetables? People think that growing veg is a lot of work, but that's only true if you go the whole hog and grow 15 or 20 different kinds.

Instead, stick to two or three vegetables, and to make it worthwhile choose things that are difficult to find in the shops, such as broad beans, French beans and Swiss chard. You may find beans at the greengrocer, but they tend to be harvested too big and will not be at their sweet and tender best. Don't bother with vegetables which aren't improved by being grown at home. Leeks, onions, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and courgettes taste the same to me whether I've grown them myself or bought them - particularly if they are organic.

I grow most of my vegetables mixed in with flowers for cutting in a plot about 8m (30ft) square, but you'd be fine with half this space. Having a house or garden in shade is no excuse either. Swiss chard, for example, grows fine in semi-shade. In fact, you don't even need a garden; varieties of all these plants thrive in containers.

Grow carrots and tomatoes too, which taste completely different just picked from the garden, and salad leaves and herbs that you find yourself using three or four times a week, but need to be fresh and only in small quantities. You don't need a greenhouse; the seeds can be germinated on a windowsill or in the garden.

Now is the time to be buying seed for your mini-vegetable plot. This could be on a balcony or even a series of window ledges. The best thing to do is to make wooden boxes, 30-40cm (12-18in) deep, and as wide and long as you can manage in the space available. Fill them two thirds full with a soil-based compost such as John Innes No 2, which has better water retention and is heavier than multi-purpose potting compost. Composted coir is a good alternative. Top them up with with a richer organic material such as well- rotted manure, or homemade worm-bin compost and mix it in. I grow `Tumbler' tomatoes in this way, just outside the kitchen door. Their tubs are full of a mix of John Innes No 2 with compost from our heap of rotted kitchen waste, layered alternately with hay or straw.

If all this sounds too much to handle, go for the plastic grow-bag option to get yourself started. But buy big ones, about 25-30cm (10- 12in) deep, which contain a decent quantity of compost. If you stint and go for those 99p special-offer bags, you will end up with a lot of roots and no compost and the plants will not fruit. Using grow-bags for container vegetable gardening is also a good idea for people who live on or near a busy road; it prevents any anxiety about lead levels in your soil.

Herbs and salad leaves are a story in themselves. There are lots of varieties that I would recommend for growing in a restricted space and I will deal with these in a week or two.

If you really don't have much room, go for a dwarf variety of broad bean which doesn't need poling, `The Sutton'. This needs to be sown soon. It will only grow to 40-50cm (14-18in) tall and 15-20cm (6-9in) wide. Four of these plants in a 1m- (4ft-) long container will provide over a month's supply of broad beans for two people to eat about twice a week.

To sow, push a couple of beans into the soil 5cm (2in) apart at each planting position, to a depth of 1cm (12in). Weed out the weaker-looking plant if they both germinate. If you have more room, sow the beans straight into the ground, selecting a larger, heavy cropping variety like `Express', which will start cropping in late June and will give you baskets of beans for about a month.

If you want to grow French beans, go for the tasty `Radar' or `Aramis', both heavy-cropping, stringless and tender. They are also compact; you can space them only 20cm (9in) apart and they will grow 30-40cm (12-18in) tall. Four plants will give you plenty of beans, enough for two people to eat every other night, and they will keep producing for a month. With these two varieties, the more you pick, the more beans they will form.

Sow them at the beginning of May in exactly the same way as the broad beans. If you sow a month earlier on a cool, light windowsill inside, you will get larger plants that will be ready for putting outside once the frosts are over in mid-May. This way you will be picking two or three weeks earlier.

Swiss chard is a brilliant vegetable which I would grow, whatever the restrictions on space. It has a green leaf with a chunky, white stem. You can strip the green part away and eat it like spinach and then steam the stems and serve them like asparagus with lemony butter. Both parts are delicious.

Sow the usual green and white form, or go for a rainbow-stemmed variety such as `Bright Lights', which has a mix of red, yellow and orange stems. You will need a larger container - a half-barrel is good - as chard forms big, bushy plants which need room to spread their roots.

Sow straight into the container as thinly as you can and cover the seed with an inch of compost. You can sow any time from the middle of April onwards. Two or three weeks after sowing, thin the plants to 20cm (9in) apart. They will mature in eight weeks and give you a crop to pick for four or five months at a stretch.

For homegrown carrots, choose `Suko', which is one of the earliest, sweetest carrots you will find and is ideal for growing in containers. Sow the tiny seed on the surface of the compost as thinly as you can and then cover it in an inch of compost and water. Spread the seeds thinly and you will not need to thin them out later. This will give you bunches of finger-style carrots eight to 10 weeks after sowing. Like chard, you can sow any time from the middle of April.

Finally, tomatoes. `Tumbler' is a bush variety especially bred to cascade over the side of a container. These plants will give you sweet tomatoes midway in size between a normal and a cherry tomato.

Sow half a packet of seed into a tray of damp compost or two or three small pots. Cover them with clingfilm and newspaper until the seeds germinate. Pot the seedlings up individually when they have three pairs of leaves and store them on a cool, light windowsill until the frosts are over, when you can plant them into containers.

Recommended vegetable catalogues: Thompson and Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 01473 688 588, fax 01473 680 199; Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Suffolk CB8 7QB, 01638 552 512, fax 01638 750468; Chilterns, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB, 01229 581 137, fax 01229 584 549

This week

1 A good time to start thinking of buying mushroom compost to use as a mulch over your flower beds. A 5cm (2in) layer decreases the number of weeds, helps retain moisture and improves the quality of your soil.

It makes the garden look immaculate too. Spread compost around your plants as the herbaceous perennials begin to emerge in the early spring, but take care not to smother their crowns. If you have room to store it, buy compost in bulk. It will cost far less than the stuff in bags from the garden centre

1 Order summer-flowering bulbs such as gladioli, lilies and autumn crocus from the spring catalogues of suppliers De Jager (The Nurseries, Marden, Kent TN12 9BP, 01622 831 235, fax 01622 832 416) and Jacques Amand (PO Box 22918, London N10 3WS, 0181 444 1191, fax 0181 883 0900)