Chard times: If want to grow delicious veg this year give yourself a head start and buy young plants instead

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

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Recruitment Genius: Fertility Nurse

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join the ho...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash