Anna Pavord - Bit of a squash: Homegrown produce

If you fancy growing your own veg this year, now’s the time to get those seeds potted up, says Anna Pavord. With a bit of luck, there’ll be homegrown produce on your plate come spring
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The Independent Online

Round about now, any gardener who likes to grow vegetables will be itching to tear the tops off some seed packets and get the growing season started again. It doesn't pay to be in too much of a hurry though. You might be able to provide heat for your seeds to germinate, but at some stage plants have to face the real world, which will be a good deal chillier and more dangerous than life in the propagator. To be strong, robust and capable of shrugging off disease, plants must grow as seamlessly as possible. If they are hanging around inside when they should be out, they'll get spindly and weak. The roots will lose their thrust, and somehow they never pick up speed again.

The biggest gamble is the weather. Last year was tricky: two months without rain at the beginning of the growing season (we were without from 8 March until 8 May) and then a whole summer when the rain never seemed to stop. Anyone who started to grow vegetables for the first time last year may already have gone off the whole idea. Please try again. It's worth it.

In our rectory garden, where over a long period we resurrected an old-fashioned kitchen garden, I used to grow every fruit and vegetable that would survive outside. We had small children then and providing food was the driving force of all my gardening. Things are different now. There are excellent farm shops and farmers' markets around us. Fewer mouths gather round our kitchen table. I want time – and space – for a different kind of gardening. And I no longer feel the need to grow runner beans when French beans taste so much better. Or cauliflowers, which I love, but which are difficult to produce as well as they are grown in the Fens. No radish either – nobody ever seems to want them.

Salad leaves are top of the list now. They are ludicrously expensive to buy and as ludicrously easy to grow. I grow all mine in tubs – wooden half barrels – which are filled mostly with compost from our own heap. On top of that is a thin layer of multi-purpose compost, which is finer, and cleaner than the home-made stuff and therefore easier to use as a seed bed. Just scatter the seed thinly on top of the compost, cover with a fine layer of the same compost and, if cats or birds are likely to be a nuisance, protect with a square of chicken netting.

I don't do hearting lettuce any more, just cut-and-come-again mixtures such as 'Misticanza' (Chiltern Seeds £1.70) or 'European Mesclun' (Chiltern £1.80). The seeds germinate fast and you start cutting when the leaves are three or four inches high. The plants sprout again remarkably quickly. There are endless variations on this theme, including 'Siamese Dragon' (Chiltern Seeds £1.95) a mix of Asian greens that you can eat raw in salad or use in a quick stir fry. These young salad crops will grow in a window box, if you remember to water and feed regularly. The advantage of tubs and barrels is that you can provide a greater depth of compost under the plants. The roots have space to explore and the compost is less likely to dry out.

Squashes come high on the list too, especially the winter butternut type. Unfortunately, their habit of growth doesn't always suit our weather. They need a long, late autumn to ripen their fruit. Unripe ones are edible, but don't have the same rich, nutty taste. Last year I grew 'Avalon' (Thompson & Morgan £2.19), sowing the seeds one to a three-inch pot, and setting them out at the end of May. They sulked most of the summer, needing more heat than they were getting. In August and September the plants started to take off, but were frosted before they had even begun to produce a decent crop.

This year, I'm trying 'Harrier' (Thompson & Morgan £1.99). They say that in their own trials, this was the quickest butternut squash to ripen. They were harvesting it 95 days after sowing seed. So if I sow in mid-May, I should be able to pick squashes from mid-September. But a lot rests on that "should". You can encourage plants to fruit by pinching out their growing tips. But they still need a long growing season – much longer than summer squashes such as 'Patty Pan' – and a warm autumn, with no early frost.

'Harrier' is British-bred. This isn't a jingoistic call to arms, but a reminder that breeders in this country will be trying to persuade vegetables to acclimatise to summers that are not so hot nor so long as they are used to. This is particularly important with South American crops such as squashes and sweetcorn. Early attempts at growing sweetcorn over here had mixed success. Everything depended on a long warm September and October. But growers now have produced varieties that do not require such a long growing season. If they can do for squashes what they've done for sweetcorn then my chances of success with butternuts will be better in the future than they have been in the past. Meanwhile the onion squash 'Uchiki Kuri' (Suffolk Herbs £1.15) might be a better bet. It doesn't need such a long growing season as the butternut.

Though our sweetcorn plants languished in the first half of last summer, they picked up in the second and we had a superb crop (compensation for the tomatoes, which were a disaster – blighted already by early July). There is a huge advantage in growing your own sweetcorn because as soon as a cob is picked, the sugar in the cobs starts turning to starch and they lose flavour. But don't sow too early. Start seeds off in modules or small pots and set them out at the end of May when the weather should be improving and there's no danger of night frosts. Be guided by weather, not by a calendar. If young sweetcorn plants are cold, they can't photosynthesise. They turn yellow and stagnate. Plant in blocks so that the cobs get the best possible chance of catching each other's pollen and use a super-sweet variety such as 'Northern Extra Sweet Hybrid' (Thompson & Morgan £1.59). As its name suggests, this will produce a crop even in the chillier areas of the country.

* Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, tel: 01229 561137, e-mail: info@chilternseeds.co.uk, chilternseeds.co.uk.

* Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, tel: 01473 695225, thompson-morgan.com. Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, tel: 01376 572456, e-mail: sales@suffolkherbs.com, suffolkherbs.com

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