No gardener needs telling that spring has been slow this year. The jobs we hoped to do in March haven't been done. Easter, too, was chilly (at least it was with us), so there was no chance of catching up then either. It's no good sowing vegetable seed in soil that is both cold and wet. It rots. And time is running out.
The simplest way to make up time in the vegetable garden is to buy young plants of the crops you want to grow and stick those in the ground instead. It's certainly a more expensive option, but you'll still save on the price you'd pay for the same things bought at a supermarket.
Most of the big seed companies – Suttons, Mr Fothergills, etc – now sell plants as well as seeds. Delfland specialises in young vegetable plants, organically grown in Cambridgeshire. If you are in a hurry for salads, they can deliver green and red Batavia lettuce, cos lettuce 'Quintus' and 'Little Gem', the butterhead lettuce 'Pronto' and wild rocket. All can be sent out in early May, five plants of each variety in a pack and each pack costing £1.70.
If you get in an order before the end of this month, they'll also deliver plants of globe artichoke (three plants for £1.70), cardoon (five plants for £1.70), asparagus (three plants for £1.70), celeriac (five plants for £1.70), celery (five plants for £1.70), chard (five plants for £1.70) and beetroot in early May. They do two kinds of beetroot: the well known 'Boltardy' for roots (20 plants for £1.70) and the handsome dark-leaved 'Bulls Blood' for baby-leaf salads (20 plants for £1.70). The chard is 'Bright Lights', a searingly vivid mixture of plants with stems that can be bright red, pink, orange, yellow, cream or white.
Both the beetroot and the chard will grow pretty well in containers, provided they are properly watered and fed. Plants use up the nutrients in bought compost in about six weeks. After that, they depend on you, the gardener, for regular meals. Leafy crops, such as chard, need fertilisers high in nitrogen (check the N number on the back of the pack). Root vegetables need fertilisers high in phosphates (P) and potassium (K).
The bigger the container, the more likely the vegetables are to thrive. A big container provides a more stable growing environment. It does not heat up and cool down as rapidly as a small one. Nor does it dry out as fast. Vegetables, especially leafy ones, are greedy things, but both the 'Bulls Blood' beetroot and the rainbow chard are as decorative as any purely ornamental plant. You could scatter some seed of English marigold among them to enhance the display. The petals of English marigolds (Calendula officinalis) can be used instead of saffron to colour rice, or sprinkled as a garnish on a leafy salad.
Chard, especially the red-stemmed kind, is a drama queen, but if you don't upset it, it will develop into a superb plant: rich glowing red stems topped by luxuriantly crinkled foliage.
By nature, it is biennial, running up to seed in its second season. At this stage the plants are still decorative, but much too coarse to eat. They are used superbly in the vast potager at Villandry in France, where the rich ruby stems are set off against deep red roses and the purplish blue spikes of Salvia superba.
The most ticklish stage is the early one. If plants are checked in the first two or three months of life, they will forget all about being biennials and run straight up to seed instead. If you are growing in the open ground, remember they like fertile soil, rich in nitrogen. Add plenty of farmyard manure or compost. If it can be arranged, chard makes a good follow-on crop after peas or beans. You can sow seed right up until July, setting it no deeper than 1.5cm (3/4in) in rows 38-45cm (15-18in) apart. Alternatively, sow "at stations" setting three or four seeds at 60cm (2ft) intervals along the row.
These plants should crop right through the winter until late spring next year when they will start to run up to seed. Chard will run to seed in the same year if it is sown too early. Almost certainly, seed-sown plants will need thinning; thin the seedlings to at least 30cm (12in) apart in the rows. If you have sown "at stations", thin the weaker seedlings to leave one plant at each point. Keep young plants growing as smoothly as possible by providing plenty of water and liquid feeds. Mulch to conserve moisture. When you want to harvest chard, pull the stems rather than cutting them. Do not take too many leaves from any one plant at a time, especially in winter, or the plant may not be able to recover.
Enthusiasts say that the steamed stalks are as good as asparagus; I think the taste is much more watery, less concentrated. But certainly, for the best results, you need to cook the stems and the leaves separately. Strip the greenery from the stems, slice up both and give the stems a three-minute head start in boiling water before you add the greens. You can also serve the two separately. My favourite recipe is chard soup with coconut milk. For this you need:
250g chard (green part only)
125g other winter greens (kale, sprout tops, pak choi, mustard)
2 onions, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1.5ltrs good stock
400ml tin coconut milk
Salt and black pepper to taste
Shred the chard and winter greens. Fry the onion and garlic gently in the oil until the onion is transparent. Add the greens, stock and coconut milk. Bring gently to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes before liquidising. Taste and season the soup. That's all.
Delfland Nurseries Ltd, Benwick Rd, Doddington, March, Cambs PE15 0BR, 01354 740553, organicplants.co.uk. In late May, Delfland can send out young plants of runner bean, French bean and the climbing Borlotti bean 'Lingua di Fuoco', courgette, sweetcorn, 'Jack o'Lantern' pumpkin and 'Uchiki Kuri' and 'Harrier' squash