Not until the Eighties did the rest of us, spurred on by the ecological and organic movements and the television series The Good Life, appreciate that vegetables could provide as much of a creative challenge as flowers and shrubs. Television experts seduced us with the saucy charms of the potager - the decorative vegetable garden. They encouraged us to plant the more attractive edibles in among the flower borders. Lettuce leaves turned from green to deepest red, tomatoes from red to yellow, the modest pea became the exotic mangetout - and it was all celebrated in glossy picture books.
Yet when people learn that I raise vegetables, their first question still is how much money I save. Now there are many reasons to grow your own, but economy is not one of them. A couple of years ago I calculated how my production costs - including seeds, tools, transport but not the value of my own labour - compared with the prices in Brixton market, which is probably the cheapest retail source in south London. While my leeks and cabbages turned out marginally cheaper, my sprouts, potatoes, peas, lettuce and cauliflower were about twice as dear as Brixton. Home-grown carrots (a low yield that year) cost me pounds 1.40 a pound compared with the Brixton price of 12p.
So why bother? There are several answers. Many vegetables taste immeasurably better when picked a few hours before eating, especially salads, peas, beans and sweetcorn. Growing my own, I can choose a specific variety I like - one that may not be available in the shops. Take tomatoes: some of the best-tasting varieties are not grown commercially because they do not stay firm enough to survive supermarket packaging.
People who worry about chemical pesticides and fertilisers on shop-bought vegetables can choose organic methods of control on their own plots. And there are other health benefits, digging is good, gentle, fresh-air exercise, directed to a purpose. Above all there is a sense of achievement, of learning a skill that can be put to practical use. For a beginner, the day you garner your first edible pickings is nearly as exciting as when your child takes its first steps. Dig not for victory but for fulfilment.
In this four-week series, Mary Keen and I will go through the art of vegetable gardening with advice on what to grow and how to grow it in a variety of conditions and settings. This week we describe our own very different plots; Mary outlines the main options; and I remind you what you should already be doing to ensure good crops this season. ML
HOW TO GROW THEM
What sort of gardener are you? Down- to-Earth-Die-Hard? Design buff? Lazy, or with ecological leanings? Short- of-Space? Airborne? There are ways of growing veg, whatever your persuasion or position.
Down-to-Earth-Die-Hards will want to grow their crops in traditional rows - allotment style. Double digging (which means incorporating manure into the soil two spits of a spade deep) will not scare them. They will want potatoes and cabbages, onions to hang in the shed, and not too much new-fangled nonsense. Down-to-Earth-Die-Hards tend to grow the same varieties for years. They probably grow what their grandfather grew. They believe in crop rotation (which modern research has shown to be hardly worthwhile except in huge areas), sowing seeds on St Patrick's Day, cleaning your tools before you put them away and double digging - every year. They also like manure.
Design buffs have potagers - those dainty plots studded with frilled lettuces, anything with red leaves and rocket. They can hardly bare to pick the veg because it might spoil the pattern. With no room for potatoes or the cabbage tribe, they concentrate on fashionable salads, flowers for putting into the fashionable salads, herbs and sometimes spinach. Little hedges surround their tiny beds which are arranged in a pattern taken from early gardening manuals or copied from Villandry. Design buffs need deep purses or back-up plots to grow more crops to fill the spaces when the first lot have been eaten. Otherwise they will go hungry.
Lazy or green gardeners will opt for the deep bed method of growing what they want to eat. Raised beds need no digging. Their secret is that they are never walked upon. All cultivation is done from the path so the beds are made narrow enough to get at without stretching so far that you overbalance.
Four foot, if there is a path on each side, is about what more people can manage. Each year compost is heaped on to the bed and the worms do the rest. Brick or timber edges are sometimes recommended but heaped soil is just as good. After about 10 years you might find the beds a bit top heavy, but most people will have moved to another garden by then. Hard paths are not vital, tramped earth is fine, but any path must be wide enough for a barrow.
Short-of-space gardeners can try the odd vegetable in the flower bed. Seakale, with crinkly grey leaves, is as beautiful as it is delicious. Artichokes, cut-and-come-again lettuces, runner beans with jolly red flowers, broad beans with crimson ones, would not look out of place in a garden. Spinach beet, with its wide green leaves, is as restful as a hosta and less likely to be damaged by slugs. Courgettes and squashes can be trained up posts. All mixed up with summer flowers like dahlias or annuals in strong colours, the vegetables would make a good foliage background. This method is for the original, who likes to be different.
Airborne growers, who have to make do with roofs or window boxes, can also grow their own. Later in the series a whole 600 words will be devoted to growing vegetables in pots. MK
WHAT TO DO NOW
If your vegetable patch has not been dug over yet this winter, it is time to do it - unless you have adopted the raised-bed system (see "How to Grow Them"). Dig in garden compost or rotted manure to put the soil in good heart.
You will need to decide an overall planting strategy, based on your needs and the space at your disposal. (Asparagus, for instance, is delicious - but it occupies a lot of ground for a whole season and the yield is low.)
Think ahead to when the vegetables will mature. Do not make the mistake of having everything come to hand in late summer and autumn - the most prolific seasons - or growing too much of the same. Put in something you can be enjoying in June, like early peas (Feltham First or Douce Provence) and broad beans (Express). And provide for the bleak midwinter by sowing late-maturing leeks and Brussels sprouts. Montgomery and Odette are both tasty late sprouts, while the leeks Wila and Winora crop well into spring.
Potatoes are a good garden crop because they yield well, are easy to grow and keep the ground clear of woods. Earliest varieties are planted in mid-March in the south, a week or two later in colder parts. Many gardeners have already bought their seed potatoes and put them in a light frost- free room to "chit" or sprout, making them grow faster. If you have not bought yours yet, a limited choice is still available at garden centres.
Gardeners vie with each other to get the first edible potatoes, Early sorts such as Rocket, Pentland Javelin and Maris Bard will produce egg- sized tubers in June, which are delicious boiled with mint and butter. Main crop varieties, planted in April and ready in late August, are more productive.
King Edward and Maris Piper are large, popular main crops, and Desiree is for those who like potatoes with a pinkish skin. The variety that does best for me is Marfona, technically a "second early", midway between earlies and main crops. Two potatoes grown specially for use in salads have become popular in recent years - Pink Fir Apple and Ratte, both small and sausage- shaped.
If you have a greenhouse or conservatory or a southfacing window-sill you may already have started some seeds in pots or seed trays. Lettuce, celery, celeriac and parsley all transplant well - but be sure the seedlings do not get weak and leggy through too much warmth and not enough light.
In the mild south, if the ground is not frozen or soggy, plant bulbs of garlic and shallots. You can also make outdoor sowings of broad beans, Kohl Rabi (a deliciously tender kind of turnip), spring onions, leeks, and sprouts. Garlic, shallots and broad beans should be put in where they are to grow, but the others can be started in a seed bed and planted out later.
Growing from seed is the most economical and satisfying method, but it is not the only way. If your time is precious or your space limited, you can buy young plants of the most common vegetables from most garden centres. Purists will disapprove, but then purists may have rather more time on their hands. ML
OH, FOR A CAVOLO NERO
OUR GLOUCESTERSHIRE vegetable garden (right) is really out of bounds for me. In picking and hoeing I am allowed to participate, but the choosing and placing of crops is man's work.
My husband Charles is a Down-to-Earth-Die-Hard. He likes to grow the varieties we have always grown - in rows. I like the rows, but I also like new varieties.
There is much dialogue about French leeks, flushed mauve, designed to be eaten, finger size. Red Brussels sprouts, more squashes, Cavolo Nero, the ultimate River Cafe vegetable, have all been on my wish list. Sometimes we get them, sometimes we don't.
The garden is divided into four quarters. The block that contains raspberries, strawberries, artichokes and asparagus is mine. The rest is his. We have the best runner bean props that I know. Made from hazel poles, they are laboriously constructed over two days to a pattern perfected by George, who had worked all his life in the woods near where we used to live.
We have lots of potatoes, Arran Pilot and Pink Fir Apple and plenty of cabbages which are the subject of much hair tearing when the cabbage whites flutter over them as they do every June. Runner beans, broad beans, salads, spinach, garlic, beetroot, courgettes are all standbys. The rest are negotiable.
Double digging was the order of the winter until the Die Hard discovered the Mantis Tiller, which can eat yards of ground for elevenses. Like a small motorised plough it is rather brilliant but it is a one-man plough. An electric wheelbarrow makes light work of wheeling loads of manure uphill: apart from these mechanical aids, all the work is done without outside help and very little from me. MK
SMALL BUT PERFECTLY FORMED
At 30ft wide and 50ft long, my plot (above) is only half the size of a traditional allotment, but it is more than enough to keep my wife and me busy for several hours most weekends, and it provides rather more than half our consumption of vegetables. It is in south London, adjoining Brixton Prison and the waterworks. The Thames Water Authority charges us pounds 10.50 a year in rent. One advantage of being a Water Board allotment is that each of the 60 or so plots has a tap alongside it. We have farmed it for more than 20 years. It is on a fast-draining light soil that someone once told me was Thames alluvial mud. This makes it suitable for vegetables, which as a rule do not like to get their feet wet; but it gets dusty in dry weather.
The owner of a local stables sometimes dumps bags of manure mixed with sawdust by the gate. We let it rot for a few months, then dig it in. Occasionally I buy bags of rotted manure from the garden centre, and from time to time during the summer I rake in Growmore.
Sometimes there are failures, due to bad luck with weather, natural predators, disease or simple incompetence. But there is nearly always something to reap at any time of the year and we are happy with the results. The allotment is part of our urban way of life. MLReuse content