IF YOU HAVE space and time to grow all the vegetables you can eat you are lucky. Clever gardeners should be able to feed themselves for most of the year from a plot roughly half the size of a tennis court, but they would need to work hard and use every inch of ground. The more room you have, the easier it is to try out several varieties of a crop. Only you will know what you would most like to eat. These are my personal priorities. First early potatoes - what we call "new" potatoes are a must. If you have never eaten freshly dug potatoes - from ground to table within the hour - you have a treat in store. The main crops which are planted later are only for those with acres. Cabbages are contentious - or they are in this garden - left to myself I would concentrate on other brassicas - sprouts, broccoli and tiny cauliflowers before giving ground to cabbages. Their beauty is seductive, but it is a struggle to preserve them from caterpillars. I would also choose leeks before onions and garlic. There is no advantage in a fresh onion, and not much in garlic, but leeks are different and so are spring onions if you like them. Salads, spinach, courgettes, carrots, beetroot and parsnips are obvious choices. Broad beans are great consumers of space, but I would always want them. Runner beans are beautiful but a trouble to grow because they need somewhere to climb. So do peas. Mangetouts are one for the cook - podding takes hours. Dwarf French beans are a good idea if you cannot be bothered to arrange supports for climbers (but they are harder to pick). Asparagus and artichokes need plenty of space. If you love them as much as I do you will make sure they get it. The choice will be different for everyone. For some, school memories of Brussels sprouts will rule these out: others might be prejudiced against spinach, or have a passion for sweetcorn. The point is to grow what you want to eat.
Owners of smaller plots must be even more selective. No potatoes, no brassicas probably, but plenty of salads for summer and winter. The cut-and-come-again mixtures of different leaves (often sold in Italy as misticanza) are a good choice. Beans on wigwams of sticks will take up less than rows. Anything that climbs will save horizontal space - so trailing courgettes which can be persuaded to reach for the sky may be more suitable than bush varieties. Spinach is always useful (unless, of course, your family and friends refuse to eat it) and herbs will make up for the restricted varieties of vegetables. Chives, parsley, rocket and coriander would each earn their keep all summer. One or two of the gourmet vegetables below might be worth growing for a rare treat, but they would not provide more than one or two meals at most.
Container gardeners can be one up on the rest by concentrating on Mediterranean crops. Tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are all easy to manage in pots and look rather cheerful as well. But they do need sun. In a large pot the elegant blue podded climbing French bean Blue Lake could be grown on a wigwam of sticks. Cut and come again lettuce would work in a window box, as would various herbs.
Whatever the size of your plot, it is sensible to divide it into at least three areas, four is better, so that you avoid growing crops in the same place year after year because any monoculture can lead to a build-up of pests. Potatoes and roots can be treated as one group. Potatoes are good cleaners of ground because their leaves suppress all weeds, so they are often chosen for new plots. Peas and beans have a clever trick of leaving the soil richer in nitrogen than it was before they were planted, they are nitrogen fixers, and these form another group. The onion tribe, spinach and salads are often lumped together, but because they grow quickly, they can be moved about the garden between rows of other crops. This is fine as long as they are not grown in the same place two years running. It sounds complicated but you soon get the hang of it if you keep careful records each year. After three or four years, crops are back where they started. Container gardeners should aim to use fresh soil each season. If pests and diseases become a problem in a small plot, the soil might need a break for one season in four, but salads are usually fairly trouble free.
Gourmet vegetables are the ones which are rarely around in the supermarkets. When they are, they cost pounds 2 for two helpings. Cavolo Nero, an almost black Italian kale, is the veg of the moment. A staple ingredient at the River Cafe, it is easy to grow, looks exotic and tastes good enough to eat on its own with pasta. Broad bean, the Sutton, is dwarf and delicious and the pods can be cooked when they are small. Even more recherche is the crimson flowered form, held in the Henry Doubleday Association's Heritage Seed Library. Yellow French wax pot beans are the sort which get turned into haricots. They never reach the shops as pods but they are one of the treats of late summer. Choose Golden Butter or Golden Sands. Even confirmed beetroot haters should be tempted by a variety called Barbietola di Chioggia, which has white roots that are marbled with pink. Ping pong ball sized, cooked with plenty of butter, garlic, lemon juice and parsley, they make one of my favourite foods.
Artichokes, not the Jerusalems which need lots of space, but the beautiful silvery leafed ones which produce globes, are much better fresh than the tired and wizened ones in the shops. I like Gros Vert de Laon, but some people prefer Gros Camus de Bretagne. Sea kale, sometimes described as poor man's asparagus, comes at that awkward moment in the year when the pigeons have eaten all the broccoli and it is too early for summer crops. Sea kale needs blanching under forcing pots or it will be bitter. The white ribs of the leaves are cooked and eaten with butter and lemon juice, you hardly ever get the chance to eat this, except in the best private gardens. If you travel in Italy and France and eat a particularly delicious and unfamiliar vegetable you can ask for its name, buy seed locally and grow your own next year.
TURN OVER A NEW LEAF
Salads are the most worthwhile of all vegetables. If you want lettuces with hearts, the secret is to sow a pinch of seed every fortnight so that there will be a succession. The salad bowl sort are easy because you just keep picking the leaves.
Winter salads need to be sown in summer. Corn salad or Lamb's Lettuce is a good alternative to lettuce in the winter. Rocket, which can be treated in the same way, is also hardy and often tastes better in winter than in hot dry conditions, when it can seem very peppery.
The mixed salad leaves which cost a packet washed and wrapped can be yours all summer for the price of a packed of Saladini (pounds 1.20 from the Organic Gardening Catalogue), or Red Lettuce Mixture (pounds 1.79 from Thompson and Morgan). Little Gem lettuce is available on the supermarket shelves but is never so good as when it is home grown: if you like Little Gem, Tom Thumb tastes even better. Winter salads, lambs lettuce or corn salad and rocket, which can be picked all year, are a wonderful addition to bought lettuces. Red chicory has a slightly bitter taste but adds untold glamour to winter salad. MK
What Mary describes here as "gourmet vegetables" used to be called "unusual vegetables" in catalogues - if they were felt to merit a mention at all. Today, egged on by food writers and restaurateurs, we are more adventurous with our greens, but the seed companies' sales figures show that most of us still grow primarily the familiar cabbages, sprouts, leeks, lettuce, peas, beans, carrots and potatoes that our grandparents knew. Sowing seed outdoors for these staples comes in two stages. If you live in the south and the ground is not too cold or wet, you can start the first batch now. They include the leeks, Brussels sprouts and early peas that I wrote about last week. You can also make a start on broad beans, cabbages, cauliflower, radishes, turnips and parsnips.
When the soil gets warmer, put in lettuce, carrots, broccoli, onions, runner beans and, later still, courgettes, marrows, and pumpkins. None of these are the kind of exotica that draw any gasps of admiration from dinner guests, but they do provide staple fare for the family table from the summer onwards.
In choosing varieties, there is a lot to be said for the F1 hybrids, especially for less experienced gardeners. Although they actually cost more than standard seeds, they are bred for vigour and are more likely to produce a viable crop in less than perfect conditions. All Fl hybrids are marked as such on the packet.
Be careful not to sow too many cabbages - a few go a long way. Red cabbages, maturing a little later, may be a better bet, and Ruby Ball (Marshalls) is my favourite. Summer cauliflowers such as Snow Crown and Alpha can also be started soon but they are harder to grow than cabbages, more vulnerable to disease and drought. For the later-heading kinds, such as Canberra and Autumn Giant, wait until the second half of April.
Some of us sowed our first batch of broad beans as long ago as October. Mine put on a good two inches of growth before winter set in and the mild weather has allowed them to progress steadily ever since. This only works with a super-hardy variety such as Aquadulce, which is specifically bred for autumn sowing, and you have to live in a mild area.
The earlier you get your parsnips sown the better. They take a long time to germinate and then develop slowly until ready for digging in late autumn and through the winter, when they add their subtle flavour to the Sunday roast.
Beginners sometimes give up on them: when the seedlings have not appeared after two weeks or so, they dig the ground over and use it for something else. But be patient, and within a month they will poke their heads above the soil. One of the best flavoured is Tender and True, but last season I did well with Gladiator, a new Fl hybrid from Thompson and Morgan.
Another root crop you could try is celeriac - easier than celery and good for salads and soups and the currently popular "mash". Snevhide from Marshalls usually does well for me. Again start early, sowing the seed indoors about now and planting out in May.
Two staples I have never really mastered are carrots and onions, and I suspect the reason is that I do not take enough trouble to prepare the fine-tilth soil that both need. I get some delicious young baby carrots - terrific to nibble raw but they seldom grow to a decent size and often they develop split roots, having met a stone on the way. Stump-rooted carrots, such as Early Nantes and Chantenay Red Cored, are less prone to splitting than the tapered variety.
Growing onions from sets (small bulbs) is easier than from seed, but like my carrots they never seem to swell out as much as they should. I find shallots and garlic more productive, especially garlic: just divide a bulb into its component cloves, plant them as early as you can and by summer they will have multiplied wondrously.
Radishes are one of the most satisfying crops to grow because they develop so fast - which is why children find them appealing. The all-red Cherry Belle and the white-tipped French Breakfast are popular. ML
NEXT WEEK: Preparing the soil and sowing the seeds. Plus, courgettes and salad vegetables
Seeds of most varieties we have written about are widely available from garden centres. For details of stockists and catalogues from companies mentioned, phone these numbers: Henry Doubleday Association, 01203 303517; Marshalls, 01945 583 407; Thompson and Morgan, 01473 688 821; and the Organic Gardening Catalogue, 01932 253 666.