The art in a kitchen plot

Arranging a vegetable garden into a pleasing design of interlocking plots adds aesthetic value to good taste.
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The Independent Culture
Vegetables in our garden have been used to marching in straight rows. Last season, feeling wildly innovative, I organised some of them into patterns instead. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly, though you have to be careful that you don't allow style to run away with content. Vegetables are there to be eaten, not looked at. As soon as the pattern has filled out, you'll be there, unfilling it.

The plot in question is about 20ft square. All our salad vegetables grow in triangular blocks in a long border at the bottom of the kitchen garden, so the square could be turned over to other crops. The choice will depend on what you most like to eat. I used sweetcorn, mangetout peas, celeriac, spinach, carrots, leeks and French beans.

Work began in March when we turned over the whole plot, digging in the compost that had been spread over it at the start of the year: farmyard manure (not an option in NW1, as a correspondent has sniffily reminded me), mushroom compost and our own compost, which breeds a nightmarish quantity of new weeds. Working from the centre out, we marked out the overall design. I copied a Victorian parterre, but the beauty of this kind of pattern-making is that you can do something different each year: interlocking Mondrian blocks, New Age spirals, or formal, symmetrical layouts as in the most wonderfully preposterous of all vegetable gardens, Villandry in France. That layout, restored between 1906 and 1924, was itself inspired by the 16th-century engravings of the architect Jacques du Cerceau.

Not all the crops could be sown at the same time, so we dribbled sand round the edges of the various shapes, to define the pattern. The centre was a circle destined for a tall stockade of mangetout. We set canes round the outer edge of the circle for supports and I planted the `Oregon Sugar Pod' peas (Thompson & Morgan, pounds 1.69) direct into the ground, one for each cane, on 16 March.

Four blocks of sweetcorn held in the corners of the design, like the picture mounts you see in old-fashioned photo albums. I usually hedge my bets with sweetcorn, so I sowed `Challenger' (Mr Fothergill, pounds 1.90) direct outside on 18 May, but also, a week earlier, sowed a dozen seeds in three-inch pots inside, to fill any gaps that might arise. I needed them. Mice love sweetcorn kernels and have a nose for them keener than a truffle hound's.

Connecting the corner-pieces were four plots round the four edges. Parsnips, spinach, celeriac and French beans went into these. I used the well-known parsnip `Tender and True' (Marshalls, pounds 1.24) which we sowed on 23 March. You can sow parsnips at any time from the end of February until April, but the later you sow, the more quickly the seeds germinate.

We did two sorts of spinach. `Triathlon' (Marshalls pounds 1.14), sown on 23 March, is what I call "real" spinach. It grows fast, it tastes brilliant, but it bolts if the ground gets too dry and hot. Last year being damp and cool, we had the best crops ever. When it finally came to an end, I sowed `Perpetual Spinach' (Marshalls, pounds 1.23) in the same plot. This can go in at any time between April and July. The leaves are paler, the taste is coarser, but it is luxuriant and available.

Dwarf French beans `The Prince' (Unwins, pounds 1.79) were sown on 18 May. It is a mistake to be in too much of a hurry with this crop. When the soil has warmed up, seeds germinate fast. In chill, wet soil, they rot. "Good for freezing," says the seed packet. I don't think so. As with Brussels sprouts, the pleasure of eating French beans depends on their texture as well as their taste. Freezing gives them a sliminess that bears no resemblance to the real thing.

The final edge was given over to celeriac. These were bought in as miniature plants from Marshalls. They are offering celeriac again this year: a variety called `Snow White', to be delivered in late May and costing pounds 2.70 for 15 plants. They do starter plants of artichokes, aubergines, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, lettuces, sweetcorn and tomatoes, too. It all makes vegetable growing incredibly easy.

This arrangement left eight beds to fill between the centre circle of mangetout and the various edgings. Four circular beds alternated with four wedge-shaped ones, rotating round the centre. I planted two of the wedges with carrots, `Primo' (Marshalls, pounds 2.85 for specially primed seed) and `Chantenay Red Cored' (Unwins, 99p).

Carrots are known to be lazy in the matter of sprouting growth, which is why several seed firms are, like Marshalls, offering what they call "sprinter" seed, which is coated with an agent that speeds up germination. But `Primo' is, anyway, an early variety. If you sow at the beginning of February under the protection of cloches, you can start pulling roots in May. I sowed, without cloches, on 29 March.

The other two wedges were set with leeks, planted out in early June from the seedbed where they had been sown on 6 April. I used `Walton Mammoth' (Marshalls, pounds 1.29), which produced beautiful, long-shafted leeks that we are still using. This year I am trying `Neptune' (Marshalls, pounds 1.25), a new variety with bluer foliage. But, in terms of looks, `St Victor' (sometimes called `Bleu Solaise') is still the winner, with wonderful purplish foliage. You can get it from Suffolk Seeds or from the French seed firm Graines Baumau.

The four circular beds were set with plants of cucumber, gherkin and courgette. The gherkins `Bestal' (Marshalls, pounds 1.08), sown on 4 April, were an experiment I won't repeat. This year, there will be pools of zinnias instead.

Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk EP8 3BU (01473 688821); Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 751887); SE Marshall, Wisbech, Cambs PR13 2RF (01945 466711); Unwins Seeds, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4ZZ (01945 588522), Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456); Graines Baumaux, BP 100, 54062 Nancy, France (0033 83 15 86 86)

Anna Pavord's new book `The Tulip' (Bloomsbury) is available at the special price of pounds 25 (p&p extra). To order a copy call 01634 298 036 quoting the reference `25 tulip'

How to Save a Vegetable at Risk

ONE OF the best reasons to grow your own vegetables is the way they taste. Supermarkets choose the varieties they sell on the basis of uniformity and travel-worthiness, neither of which is of any interest to anyone who enjoys their food. But by growing your own you can also do your bit to maintain biodiversity on our poor earth. In her latest book, Heritage Vegetables (Gaia Books pounds 14.99), Sue Stickland reinforces the point that heritage vegetables have a problem not shared by heirlooms such as gold watches and antique furniture. In order to survive, they must be grown and cared for. She quotes some chilling statistics. During the Nineties, 70 per cent of the UK's potato crop was made up from just 10 varieties, although 150 different types are available and more than 400 are maintained in this country's potato "museum".

The first half of the book sets out the reasons why this matters. The second half contains a comprehensive directory of heritage vegetables with mouth-watering descriptions. The broad bean `Martock' was maintained for years in the garden belonging to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Anyone who contributed to the cathedral repair fund would get a handful of seed in exchange.

You'll find here delights such as couve tronchuda, the wild-looking kale that is an essential ingredient of the Portuguese soup caldo verde. There is a basketful of unusual tomatoes, including the pear-shaped German variety `Riesentraube' and the vigorous, productive French staple `Merveille des Marches'. Make this the year you stop worrying about the rainforest and, by growing (and saving seed of) one of these threatened vegetables, do something practical for the environment instead.